Not all downtown smack dealers are Mexican or Central American. Some are white, with most of those falling in the category of gutter punk. They are homeless, semi-homeless or formerly homeless, red-blooded American youths in their teens and early twenties. Many of them are runaways. Unlike their foreign counterparts, who generally adhere to the old drug dealer's adage "Don't get high on your own supply," gutter-punk dealers are usually heroin users themselves, who sell to support their own habit. The gutter-punk dealers typically don't carry heroin on them. Instead they act as middlemen, brokering buys for white customers from the suburbs who are leery of the immigrant dealers and would rather hand over their money to a fellow American in exchange for "kicking down" a portion of their purchase back to the street kid.
Lee Hoffer, a professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine, earlier this year published a 500-page ethnographic study titled Junkie Business: The Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network, which followed two gutter-punk dealers in Denver, Kurt and Danny, from 1997 to 2000.
"Junkie Business represents the everyday reality of being addicted to heroin and having to sell the drug to support that lifestyle," says Hoffer. "I undertook the work because I felt like law-enforcement sources like the FBI, the DEA and local police always present an institutionally pre-packaged perspective on drug dealing, which is that drug dealers are all immoral maniacs who only care about making money. There's a popular misconception that heroin-selling organizations and the heroin economy are intrinsically chaotic, when in fact they can be highly organized, even on the lowest levels."
Kurt and Danny's heroin ring consisted entirely of low-level sales (less than a gram) along Larimer Street. When they started in 1997, as Hoffer wrote, "Not much seemed to have changed since Jack Kerouac wrote of the Larimer heroin scene in the 1960s." But over the course of Hoffer's field research, LoDo boomed, and the Denver Police Department launched a campaign to crack down on street drug sales in that area of town. Junkie Business described how Kurt and Danny adapted to this crackdown by moving their operation into a house on Capitol Hill. "By acting as brokers for the Central Americans," Hoffer said, "they had developed a customer base of fifteen to 25 regulars, and they basically started buying half-ounces on their own and took these customers with them."
Hoffer also covered the young dealers' transition from homeless addicts to successful black-market entrepreneurs who made enough money to get themselves off the streets, yet struggled constantly with their own addictions. Their organization crumbled when Kurt died of a blood infection at the age of 24 in February 2002. Danny disappeared the next day.
"It was interesting for me to note that the only customers Kurt and Danny ever truly lost were those who went into treatment," Hoffer says. "If a customer went to jail, as soon as they were out they would start buying heroin again. So instead of using ships to attack farmers in foreign countries, the lesson I learned was that our government's money would be better spent on treatment to attack the heroin economy. Because worldwide, there is such a never-ending supply of poor and desperate people, addicts and non-addicts alike, that there will always be heroin dealers in line waiting to replace those who die or go to prison."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.