Chicago Tribune, Monday June 29th, 1998

 

UIC researcher opens new debate on drug crimes

By Eric Zorn

 

            University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist John Hagedorn said he hoped his new study on drug dealing in the inner city would “force a debate” on the issue.  Mayor John Norquist of Milwaukee, where Hagedorn conducted his field research, was glad to oblige.  “The conclusions reached by the author are what one would expect from drug-addled minds,” Norquist wrote in response.  He called the 30-page report “farcical… twisted… an insult… a celebration of criminality.”

            What tied hizzoner’s knickers into a knot was Hagedorn’s view of the ghetto drug trade as a well-ordered, operationally logical source of employment and entrepreneurial opportunity for those with few other options.  Hagedorn’s work refers to “drug businessmen [who] work long hours,” says dealing “is in many ways an innovative… small business venture” and concludes that “much of what we call ‘crime’ is actually work.”

            With research help from former gang members, Hagedorn, 50, spent much of 1997 studying drugs as commerce in two low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods -- one predominately Hispanic.  What he found tended to belie the stereotype that drug-riddled neighborhoods know only anarchy.

            The “drug entrepreneurs,” as Hagedorn calls many pushers, are simply part of a vast, informal economy that has taken the place of jobs that have left the central city.  Drugs as an industry support some 10 percent of the men aged 18 to 29 in these neighborhoods, according to Hagedorn, but the gross receipts from such enterprises are generally so modest -- an average of $5,000 a month -- that the analogy with conventional small business is appropriate.

            “Where other academics see a tangle of pathologies, I see rationally and very recognizable American values,” Hagedorn said in an interview Friday.  The drug dealers in low-income neighborhoods “have a strong work ethic and are trying to make a buck, get ahead and stay safe.”

            Hagedorn’s theory is that recent declines in violent crime have less to do with extra cops and longer prison sentences than with the stabilization of the drug marketplace.  The sellers and runners “have relationships with suppliers, customers and rivals in an effort to coexist,” he said. 

            His report, “The Business of Drug Dealing in Milwaukee,” is a continuation of his 1988 book “People and Folks,” (updated and republished this month by Chicago’s Lake View Press) which challenged the conventional view of gang members as simply predatory animals.”

            Typical sentimental ivory-tower apologetics from an avowed leftist academic?  Those who thought so were surprised to see Hagedorn’s offering this month sponsored and published by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. 

            But when you read beyond Hagedorn’s provocative talking points on drug as business you find him rejecting such liberal solutions as government jobs programs and legalization of drugs.  At the same time he rejects as futile the conservative idea that if society just locks up enough users and pushers it can win the war on drugs.

            Instead he proposes a “conservative but daring” approach that would include maintaining strong social disapproval of drug use, alternative sentencing for non-violent drug offenders and increased efforts to bring the private sector back into neighborhoods it has largely abandoned.

            He said he didn’t mean to sugarcoat the terrible toll that drug abuse has taken on these communities.  Rather, he said, his intent was to show how the organization of the drug trade suggests such areas are ripe for the sorts of legitimate-business reinvestment that could lead to long-term improvements.

            “The drug problem is rooted in economics -- not sin and evil -- and so it needs an economic solution,” said Hagedorn, sound a theme he said he hopes will resonate across the political spectrum.

            James Miller, president of the conservative think-tank that funded the study, noted in a preface that he “may differ” with some of Hagedorn’s recommendations.  But he concluded with a sentiment with which even the angry mayor of Milwaukee must agree, “We are not likely to find solutions to difficult issues until we fully understand the dimensions of the problem.”