The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday:
When Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist got wind of a university study that characterized the young people who deal drugs in his city as hard-working entrepreneurs chasing the American dream, he was furious. It's easy to understand why. The drug trade in Milwaukee is the source of violence and social distress, as it is in other big cities. Those who control it and benefit from it hardly deserve praise.
But the insight into the nature of the drug trade offered by criminologist John Hagedorn at the University of Illinois at Chicago ought not be dismissed so easily. Indeed it should be taken seriously by those looking for solutions to an urban phenomenon that has frustrated the best efforts of law enforcement.
Mr. Hagedorn examined the drug trade last year in two low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods -- one predominantly African-American, one predominantly Latino. With help from former gang members, he discovered a well-organized, innovative enterprise -- albeit an illegal one -- that in many ways resembled the operations of legitimate small businesses. The young, mostly male dealers worked hard for rather modest incomes -- at least in relation to the Hollywood stereotype of Mercedes-Benz driving dealers -- which ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 a month.
Mr. Hagedorn, whose 30-page report was published in June by the politically conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, does not glamorize the drug trade.
Rather, he offers evidence that the young people involved are motivated not so much by a desire to do evil as by a desire to make a buck -- and that many have become quite adept at it.
Community advocates have long argued that providing legitimate job opportunities in neighborhoods where unemployment is high is essential to luring youths away from the drug culture.
Mr. Hagedorn's work suggests entrepreneurship is one thing drug dealers might excel at.
That has been the observation of Brian Jenkins, vice president for the Chicago division of KidsWay Inc., an Atlanta-based organization that teaches entrepreneurial skills to youths. Mr. Jenkins has been training African-American and Latino teen-agers since 1994 to run their own businesses. This past week he led a five-day seminar at DePaul University's downtown campus for mostly inner-city kids identified by churches and youth agencies.
Mr. Jenkins says young people who have experience in the street drug trade typically catch on quickly to the principles of running a business. They tend to have a keen understanding of such principles as supply and demand, marketing, pricing, accounting, even the importance of proper attire. They also possess an acute entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Jenkins says.
None of that makes drug dealers angels. The criminal nature of what they do must continue to be confronted by the police. But the one-dimensional strategy of rounding them up and locking them away has barely dented the problem.
Creative approaches are in order. One of them may be to capitalize on the very skills dealers have learned in the course of plying their illegal trade.
Pub Date: 8/19/98