THE EVOLUTION AND OPERATION
OF A HEROIN DEALING NETWORK
Lee David Hoffer
B.A., Westminster College, 1989
M.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1995
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Health and Behavioral Sciences
2002 by Lee D. Hoffer
All rights reserved
This thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy
Lee David Hoffer
has been approved
Hoffer, Lee (Ph.D., Health and Behavioral Sciences)
Junkie Business: The Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network
Thesis directed by Associate Professors Kitty Corbett and Steve Koester
Selling heroin has been illegal in the US for eighty-eight years. Yet relative to this
history, few research projects have investigated local organizations that distribute
the drug. This dissertation represents a sixteen-month ethnographic exploration into
the operation and evolution of a dealing network in Denver, Colorado. This research
details how the organization developed in complexity over time, operated, generated
profits, and adapted to expansion, as well as law enforcement efforts to stop it. To
make sense of these activities, this research argues a fundamental understanding of
exchanges between dealers and customers is required. Findings from the network
indicate that such relationships are expressed through different forms of
reciprocity. As a result, changes in the networks organization and operation were
characterized as transitions in reciprocal relations. By combining a game theoretic
model to these processes, this research models how such relations served to create a
cooperative environment that unified the distribution process and contributed to the
networks success and longevity as a business. Findings regarding exchange are also
noted as significant in understanding differences between heroin dealers, HIV risk
behaviors associated with heroin sales, and supply and demand features of the
heroin economy. The thesis concludes by making recommendations on ways to
integrate issues of exchange into a more comprehensive theory on heroin
distribution and how to apply these findings to policy.
This abstract accurately represents the content
recommend its publication.
of the candidates thesis. I
I dedicate this thesis to my parents and Vanessa.
I would like to thank the individuals whose lives and activities are described
in this ethnography. While I have changed their names and, at times, their personal
characteristics to protect their identity, the various members of the heroin-dealing
network allowed me to become part of their world for the brief time I conducted this
research. Almost every day for a year-and-a-half I invaded their privacy with
questions, comments, and my continued presence, and not once was I treated
disrespectfully. Having been allowed this uncommon opportunity, my first
responsibility in presenting this work has been to reflect the attitudes, beliefs, and
narratives these people shared with me. And while this charge has been challenging,
I hope the members of the network are satisfied that my portrayal of their
experiences, situations and life events are accurate. It is hard to describe the
gratitude I feel toward these individuals, many of whom I regard now as friends.
With this in mind, I have felt an odd sense of guilt writing this research in that this
work is the only tangible product I can offer in return for the experiences they
shared with me.
Of the members of the heroin dealing network I got to know over the course
of this study the single most important was Kurt. Above all, he is individually whom
I owe the most gratitude. A physically imposing man of extraordinary insight and
intelligence, Kurt was the primary heroin dealer in the network. He personally
afforded me entry and access to the dealing networkhis network. Over the course
of the four years I knew Kurt, I think of him as a close friend even though our
relationship was always confused by my role as a researcher. I hope, above all else,
this work would meet with his approval and I believe he would have enjoyed
reading my interpretations of his business. Unfortunately, due to his lifestyle Kurt
died before this ethnography was ever written.
I would also like to thank the National Institutes of Health, National Institute
on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for the financial support they provided for this research, as
well as Elizabeth Lambert my NIDA project officer. NIDA has a long tradition of
funding ethnographic research among illegal drug users. This commitment
reinforces one of their most important institutional aims: understanding the
behaviors, beliefs, attitudes and lives of people affected by drug abuse. By
continuing to fund similar research using naturalistic designs and methods, NIDA
serves an essential role in linking research and policy. While recent advances in
biomedical research have been important in the science of addiction, NIDAs role in
funding street level research must continue to elaborate the daily practicalities of
what it means to have a drug addiction. For many years, this level of research has
been vital to policy makers, intervention specialists, treatment program directors and
other dedicated professionals working at the front lines of the drug abuse problem.
Since the beginning of my research career in 1992,1 have been extremely
fortunate to have had two outstanding mentors at the University of Colorado,
Denver: Dr.s Stephen Koester and Kitty Corbett. Without their patient assistance
and guidance my career would not be what it is today.
For the entirety of my eight-year research career, Dr. Koester has been my
direct supervisor and professional mentor. He was the principal investigator of the
five-and-a-half year NIDA grant from which I collected the data on the heroin-
dealing network (1R01DA09232-01A2 A Study of Individual/Network HIV
Intervention for IDUs). The relationship to this parent project, Urban Links, and
his specific guidance was essential, and is detailed in chapter two. He was also my
sponsor on the NIDA pre-doctorial fellowship I received to elaborate this research
(1F31DA06016-01 A Heroin Dealing Network: Asymmetric Power and HIV
risk). Steve contributed to all areas of this ethnography. Without his careful reading
and comments this dissertation would not have been possible. But Steves influence
on my career extends far beyond the practicalities of the research presented here.
When I first began conducting field research with active drug users, Steves
guidance instilled in me the confidence that I could do this very challenging type of
research. Being a skillful ethnographer himself, he gave me the freedom to explore
my personal research style, and make mistakes, while at the same time guiding this
development and taking great interest and enthusiasm in it. After interviews and
observations Steve would always review findings with me. Learning from Steve in
this format was ideal, because it taught me how to do ethnographic research while
actually doing it. Once I had a certain level of training, Steve then gave me ever
increasing support and responsibilities to explore my own interests in this field.
Nevertheless, as research colleagues my training has never ended, and for this I am
truly grateful. Through the course of our relationship, Steve has become one of my
closest friends and professional colleagues.
As significant as Steves contribution to my professional development, Dr.
Kitty Corbett has facilitated my academic development. Through both my Masters
and Ph.D. studies, Kitty has been my primary academic advisor. In countless hours
of class work with Kitty I learned the theoretical and methodological perspectives
that have contributed, and continue to contribute, to my research career. These
lessons were significant because they gave me a foundation in which to make sense
of the behaviors and beliefs of drug users. But as important as understanding these
fundamentals have been, as my advisor Kitty has always encouraged my creativity,
as well as challenged me to improve my skills and abilities. Her unwavering
support, guidance, and patience with me have been the most sincere expressions of
what it means to be an excellent advisor. And while these lessons have not always
been easy to learn, I am truly grateful to Kitty for her commitment to my academic
I would also like to recognize the other members of my dissertation
committee, all of who have contributed to this ethnography in important ways, as
well as to my career as a social scientist. Based on his own Experimental Economic
research in Papua New Guinea, David Tracer inspired my use of Game Theory
toward forming an understanding of cooperative relations within the heroin dealing
network noted in chapter eleven. His insights and editorial review of this chapter
were critical for me toward understanding heroin dealing within a game framework.
As an internationally renowned Distributive Justice theorist, Kjell Tomblom, in my
class work and discussions, extended the analytic perspectives on exchange that I
utilized for understanding dealers and customers behaviors. And while it was
unfortunate that this influence occurred after my data had been collected, exposure
to these theories was invaluable to me for understanding exchange processes. I look
forward to continuing the interests these two committee members have instilled in
me. My gratitude to Craig Janes is of a slightly different nature. In my first year of
graduate school, his classroom lectures and informal discussions inspired me to
study for my Masters in anthropology. Craig is also responsible for launching my
career studying and trying to understand illegal drug use behaviors. Based on his
encouragement, I started working for Steve.
Having conducted research for eight years as part of the research team at
Urban Links, many of the ideas expressed in this ethnography trace their origins to
discussions with a wide variety of colleagues. In this respect, I would like to thank
two of my friends from the original research team at Urban Links: Ken Anderson
and Ursula Lauper. Describing the transformations of the Larimer area, detailed in
chapter four, would not have been possible without their support. Additional
countless hours of discussions with Urban Links researchers Owen Murdock and
Richard Marquantte also helped me immeasurably to understand heroin users and
I would also like to acknowledge a much more recent colleague and friend:
Dr. Adel Varghese, an economist at Saint Louis University. Adels patient
assistance in helping me understand the economic components of the dealing
network, namely supply and demand and profit margins outlined in chapter eight,
was essential, since I do not have a background in economics.
On a much more practical note, I would also like to thank and acknowledge
the editors I used, as well as Chris Pon, the administrator for the department of
Health and Behavioral Sciences, at the University of Colorado, Denver. Editing my
dissertation was truly a family affair. Dina Wolf, my grandmother, initially edited
several of my first drafts of chapters. As a former professional editor herself, these
comments helped clarify much of the heroin dealers story. Mitch Levesque, my
future brother-in-law, then edited the more polished version of the final
manuscript. I am sincerely grateful for his careful reading and meticulous editorial
skills. Without the help of Chris Pon I would have never been able to complete this
project. She single-handedly administered my fellowship funds and kept me on
track for administrative requirements and dissertation procedures and deadlines.
And while these behind the scenes operators are appreciated, too often they are not
recognized for invaluable assistance they give to graduate students. Having written
this dissertation in St. Louis, MO I could not have done it without her help.
Finally, I would like to thank three particularly important people in my life:
my fiancee Vanessa Hildebrand and my parents. There were many times in the
course of writing this dissertation when I just wanted to give up. Vanessa gave me
the courage and unwavering support to persevere, as well as the encouragement I
need to do the work. Along with Vanessa, my parents instilled in me a belief that I
could do the work. My mother has always encouraged me to do my best and never
doubted my abilities, in spite of my learning disabilities. Also, my fathers own
illustrious career, as a research scientist, has always been an inspiration to me. His
interest and excitement in my career has provided me the support I have needed to
1. HEROIN DEALING...................................................1
Scope of Study...............................................3
The Two Main Dealers in the Network..........................5
Ethnographic Research with Out-Of-Treatment Heroin Users....21
The Setting and Overview....................................27
An Introduction to Aspects of Heroin Dealing................31
Heroin Addiction, the Heroin Habit, and the Dealers Habit.31
Local Heroin Market Issues............................41
Overview of Chapters........................................42
2. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS.....................................49
Ethnography and Fieldwork with Heroin Dealers...............51
The Stages of Rapport Development.........................58
Rapport with Kurt and Danny: Reciprocity and Circumstance......61
Kurt as a Research Subject: Our Initial Relationship.....62
Urban Links and the Social Network Project...............65
Kurt the Dealer: Our New Relationship.....................68
The Network Structure, Research Design, and Methods.............76
The Network Structure...........................................76
Types of Network Customers................................82
Network Sampling Strategy.................................84
The Interview Schedule....................................85
The Research Strategy and Data Analysis.........................92
Themes and Comparisons...................................100
3. THEORIES ON ILLEGAL DRUG DISTRIBUTION AND
THE IMPORTANCE OF EXCHANGE............................................102
Theory, Drug Use and Drug Dealing..............................103
Illegal Drug Dealing and the Problem of Theory...........104
Illegal Drug Dealing Theory.......................................108
Illegal Drug Markets and Change............................111
The Technical and Social Organization of Distribution......114
Gaps in Theoretical Perspectives on Dealing.......................118
Why Exchange is Important.........................................120
Selling and Buying Butter..................................121
Selling and Buying Heroin..................................124
The Fifth Motive: Maintaining the Business.................130
4. THE LARIMER SCENE (1993-1997): THREE MODERN
HISTORICAL ERAS FOR THE HOMELESS IN DENVER...............................132
The Homeless Scene: Before the Ballpark Era.......................134
The Drug Scene.............................................141
The Local Junkie Scene.....................................145
The Importance of Group Identity...........................159
The Homeless Scene: the Clean-Up Era..............................165
The Homeless Scene: After the Clean-Up Era........................178
5. STREET SALES:
LAUNCHING THE DEALING OPERATION...................................182
Kurt and Dannys Initial Dealing Structure...................190
Social Group and Social Identity.......................199
A Street Sales Operation....................................203
Being Just Another Homeless Junkie...................205
Kurts Insurance: Never Selling to Strangers...........206
Establishing a Customer Base...........................211
6. THE TRANSITION...................................................219
Leaving the Streets..........................................222
Increased Business and a Problem with Supply...........226
A Transition in Motives......................................230
The New Motive.........................................233
Heroin Use and Habit Maintenance.......................234
A Transition in Status.......................................236
The Beginning of the Rules.............................240
7. THE BUSINESS.....................................................245
Kurt and Dannys Corporate-style Dealing Network.............245
The Networks Operation and Rules.............................252
Laying the Foundation for Customers.....................255
The Networks Operation.......................................257
Hours of Operation......................................258
The Procedure: Rules of Exchange........................260
The Reasons and Reinforcement for Following the Rules...270
8. TRANSACTIONS, PROFITS, AND HIV RISK...............................276
HIV and Heroin Dealing........................................277
Direct HIV Risks in the Network.........................279
Transactions: Framing Profit..................................280
Kurt and Danny..........................................280
The Secondary Dealer....................................282
Why Investigate Pill Sales?.............................285
Kurt and Dannys Situation....................................288
Dealing and Drug Treatment...............................290
Kurt and Dannys Heroin Units and their Profit Margin....293
Making Profits, Giving Credit, and Forgiving Debt........299
Subsidiary Dealers, Heroin Units, and Profit Margin......305
Erics Business: the Story of the Subsidiary Dealer......308
Modeling Subsidiary Dealers Sales..............................317
Six Models of Subsidiary Dealers Strategies.............318
9. EXPANSION AND FAILURE...............................................327
The Plan for Expansion..........................................330
Kurts Franchise Dealers.................................332
The Franchise Set-Ups....................................335
The Battle of Customers vs. Dealers.............................337
The Failure of the Franchises...................................340
Erics Problems: Process.................................340
Jerry and Rauls Problems: Motives.......................342
Other Reasons for Failure................................346
10. THEORIES ON EXCHANGE AND
FORMS OF RECIPROCITY..............................................351
Social Exchange: Individualistic and Collectivistic Traditions.353
The Individualistic/Motivational Approach................354
The Collectivistic/Structural Approach...................358
Sahlins: Generalized, Balanced, and Negative Exchange..........365
Generalized Reciprocity: Exchange Between Friends........366
Balanced Reciprocity: Market Exchange....................367
Negative Reciprocity: The Enigma of Exchange.............370
Other Features of Exchange.....................................374
Direct & Indirect Exchange...............................375
Vertical (Hierarchical) & Horizontal Exchange............376
The Inclusion of Negative Reciprocity....................379
Kurt and Dannys Exchange Relationships........................381
Exchange and Status......................................381
Exchange and Cooperation.................................387
Exchange and Expansion...................................389
11. EXCHANGE AND COOPERATION: GAME THEORY
AND CREATING COMMUNITY OUT OF CHAOS...............................394
Positive-Sum, Zero-Sum, and Negative-Sum Games................397
The Prisoners Dilemma........................................397
The Prisoners Dilemma and Heroin Deal Making.................404
Defection and Hustling..................................406
Defection and Cooperation...............................408
Power Dependency Theory.................................411
The Heroin Dealing Game.......................................415
Playing the Heroin Dealing Game...............................419
The Immigrant Street-Dealer.............................422
The Subsidiary Dealer...................................426
Kurt and Danny..........................................429
12. THE END OF THE NETWORK...........................................437
The Beginning of the End......................................437
Future Research Implications..................................453
Recommendations for Theoretical Research................454
Recommendations for Applied Research
Demand Reduction Policies...........................469
GLOSSARY OF TERMS................................................476
A. Urban Links Confidentiality Certificate................483
B. Urban Links Consent Form...............................486
C. Urban Links Receipt for Subject Payments...............488
D. Semi-structured Interview Topic Index..................489
1.1 Photograph of Larimer area.............................................9
1.2 Photograph of Kurt and the author in Larimer area alleyway, circa 1996.18
1.3 Figure noting differences between Kurt and Danny.......................21
2.1 Diagram of Grounded Theory research process............................95
3.1 Schematic representing the analytic perspective of ethnography.........120
3.2 Diagram of Rules of Exchange in the legal marketplace.................123
4.1 Map of Larimer area....................................................135
4.2 Photograph of Triangle Park.........................................139
4.3 Diagram of relationships in Larimer market............................154
4.4 Diagramming the broker / customer relationship......................157
4.5 Photograph of Triangle Park sign....................................173
4.6 Photograph of fence around Lawson Park................................174
5.1 Diagram of sales buffer system Kurt used in Larimer area.............209
6.1 Photograph of Kurt and Dannys apartment building in Capitol Hill......222
6.2 Photograph of alleyway and apartment buildings backdoor...............224
6.3 Diagramming dealing motives after moving from the streets.............236
7.1 Typology of network customers, dealers, and workers....................246
7.2 Schematic showing how brokering became institutionalized...............255
8.1 Continuum of forms of payment..........................................284
8.2 Diagram noting relationship in pill size, sales, and profit............313
9.1 Photograph of Kurt and Dannys second apartment in Capitol Hill.....328
10.1 Diagram of Generalized Reciprocity.................................367
10.2 Diagram of Balanced Reciprocity...................................370
10.3 Diagram of symmetry between Generalized and Negative Reciprocity..372
10.4 Diagram of Negative Reciprocity...................................374
10.5 Diagram of reciprocal frameworks Kurt and Danny experienced.......387
10.6 Diagram of the double cycled exchange...........................390
12.1 Photograph of the Denver Veterans Hospital........................442
12.2 Handwritten note Kurt passed to author.............................445
12.3 Handwritten note (page two)........................................445
12.4 Formulaic representation of equity................................455
12.5 Photograph of reality sign (July 2001)............................475
8.1 Changes in profit margins, and profits in one week........................290
8.2 Heroin units, price, percent mark-up, and profit margin..............294
8.3 Pill divisions at $62.50 per gram and profits........................296
8.4 Changes in profits from pills in one week................................297
8.5 Net profit on pills for subsidiary dealers...............................306
8.6 Subsidiary dealers cost, mark-up, and profit margin for pills............307
8.7 Model one (12 pills): using two pills and no heroin use with customer.319
8.8 Model two (12 pills): using two pills and heroin use with customer...320
8.9 Model three (12 pills): heroin use with customer only................321
8.10 Model four (10 pills): using two pills and no heroin use with customer.....322
8.11 Model five (10 pills): using two pills and heroin use with customer.322
8.12 Model six (10 pills): heroin use with customer only.................323
8.13 Totals of all six models................................................324
10.1 Differences in theories on exchange......................................364
10.2 Form of reciprocity and relation between parties exchanging.............377
10.3 Negative reciprocity and relation between parties exchanging............379
11.1 Payoff Matrix for the Prisoners Dilemma Game............................399
11.2 Payoff Matrix for the Heroin Dealing Game................................416
11.3 Table of outcomes in the Heroin Dealing Game............................416
Every day countless numbers of people in the United States buy and sell
heroin. In 1995, there were an estimated 810,000 hard-core heroin addicts and
another 320,000 occasional heroin users in the US. The annual amount of money
spent within this illegal economy is staggering to consider. Heroin users spent an
estimated $9.6 billion buying the drug in 1995, with a median weekly expenditure
per heroin user of $208. That year, it was projected that 11.9 metric tons of heroin
was used. But these sorts of estimates, reported in What Americas Users Spend on
Illegal Drugs: 1988-1995 (ONDCP, 1997), while illustrating the problem of heroin
abuse, do not tell us about the business of dealing heroin.
A common perception about heroin dealing is that it is an extremely violent
activity in which to be engaged. News stories about heroin deals, or other drug deals,
that go bad and erupt in violence and/or death are familiar to anyone in our society
who reads the newspaper, watches television, or listens to the radio. Many of the
results of heroin dealing never make the news, however. There are countless
unreported violent acts associated with heroin dealing. From personal accounts of
users I have interviewed, these sorts of stories can be equally as gruesome as those
seen on the evening news. In 1993, a heroin user I had been interviewing was
viciously killed when a heroin deal went wrong. His skull was crushed as he was
dragged along the curb and run over by a car.
In spite of these sorts of reported and unreported incidents, one point about
heroin dealing cannot be ignored. Based upon the fact that there are over three
million heroin users in the country, and the vast number of heroin deals that likely
occur everyday as a result of this number, the majority of heroin sales within this
economy succeed. Despite the medias portrayal of drug dealing as chaotic, violent,
and reckless, much of the activity within this economy does not conform to easy
generalizations. In other words, most heroin deals do not end in disaster.
Some heroin dealers can successfully manage to sell heroin for long periods of
time in spite of the best intentions of law enforcement officials, policy makers, the
media, and the overall violence inherent to the system itself. While the longevity of
heroin dealers is likely shorter compared to the safe, legal, and socially sanctioned
careers of the larger population, it is worth noting that some dealers stay in business
for years and never have violent deals or legal trouble.
This means that, while deals between customers and dealers can bring a
researchers attention to problems, conflicts, and the violence these relationships
produce, such research can also bring attention to how they function. Investigating
such longevity, one must inevitably consider how heroin dealers, who operate in a
lawless and resource scarce context, effectively maintain their business. Discerning
how deals are handled can elucidate how stable business environments emerge in
such an environment and if and to what degree cooperation between dealers and
customers emerges. This research focuses upon these topics in the investigation of
one heroin dealing network.
Scope of Study
This is the story of one heroin-dealing network that was shaped and managed
by two dealers: Kurt and Danny. Kurt and Danny were successful heroin dealers
and maintained a full-time dealing operation in Denver, Colorado for over three years
(June 1996 until October 1999). During its three-year lifespan, their business
evolved in complexity from a rudimentary, informal street-based sales partnership to
a private, professional dealing organization with a formalized division of labor and
hierarchy. In describing this dealing network, change and adaptation are unavoidable
themes. This change was inevitable as their businesses moved through and adapted
to different types of drug market environments.
This research focuses on the day-to-day struggles and rewards of the heroin-
dealing lifestyle. In particular, this research addresses how the two dealers ran their
business, avoided police detection, spent the money they made, formed
relationships with customers, and how their business and lifestyle affected their
health and well-being. As a result, an important component of this research is
describing the personal histories of Kurt and Danny, as well as the other heroin
users and dealers with whom they interacted. This personal description, when
unfolded, also tells us a great deal about heroin dealing as a business.
To move this analysis beyond a narrative of the two dealers lives, an
additional aim of the study was to understand the business of selling heroin. Because
Kurt and Dannys existence was so immersed in the operation of this business, it
was difficult within this description to separate Kurt and Dannys personal feelings
about their enterprise from an objective understanding of it. In disentangling these
considerations, this research focuses upon one of the most fundamental forms of
interactions between heroin dealers and customers in the network: the exchange
As a heroin-dealing network, Kurt and Danny ran a business that involved
both distributors, who sold heroin, and customers, who bought heroin. The dealing
network, described in the following pages, was the web of relationships that
connected these groups together. Heroin dealing, like any drug distribution activity,
is an exchange process through which valued resources flow. Customers of dealers
receive heroin, and dealers receive cash, goods, or services in return. As a business
enterprise, heroin dealers coordinate the flow of resources. This coordination was
what kept the network together as a business and was the single most important
theme this research investigated.
The networks abrupt end in October 1999 had very little to do with the
overall success of Kurt and Dannys organization itself. It is important for the reader
to understand that, although I describe how Kurt and Danny created and
successfully managed to sell heroin for over three years, and made a lot of money
from their business, heroin dealing ultimately made their lives miserable. Dealing
heroin was not an easy lifestyle for Kurt or Danny. As a business, heroin dealing
was a means to an end and afforded them a lifestyle that was better than the
alternative, which in this case was a life on the street.
The Two Main Dealers in the Network
Throughout the entire course of this ethnographic project I worked for Urban
Links, a large and well-funded research organization directed by Dr. Stephen
Koester. My involvement with Urban Links was critical to the success of this
project. In 1996,1 was conducting interviews as a research assistant working at
Urban Links on a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study
focused on understanding injection related behaviors of heroin users in Denver. The
research protocol was challenging. The design required the researcher to observe
heroin users inject within their natural settings and then interview them about the
activities witnessed. One of the sub-populations Urban Links was concentrating
upon in May of that year was Denvers homeless street-based heroin user who
frequented the Larimer Street area. This area of the city was where all the homeless
shelters were located and was known for open drug sales and use.
I met Kurt and Danny in May of 1996, several months before either of them
began dealing heroin on a full-time basis. At the time, both heroin users were
homeless, unemployed, and living off what little money they could make or hustle
on the streets. Their plight was no different than many of their counterparts on the
streets of the area. The day I meet Kurt, I was making an injection observation with
Bobby. Bobby had arranged to inject with Kurt and Danny, although at the time I
did not know any of this. This is the story of that meeting.
During the times I interviewed him, Bobby always had a grin on his face and
an equally agreeable disposition. He lived for part of the year in a homeless
encampment under a railroad bridge next to the Platt River in downtown Denver.
The land was railroad property but the company let a small group of homeless
people live there some years back and ever since then a small community had
flourished. Bobby worked with the traveling carnival and had no permanent
residence. He was only in Denver a few months every summer.
Bobby and I hit it off immediately and had several informative interviews in
a local coffee shop were he told me about the extensive drug use on the carnival
circuit. He had gone to college and knew about cultural anthropology so my interests
and research methods were not so unbelievable to him. He did not use very much
heroin but he did inject. Every day from his camp on the river Bobby would walk
the three blocks into the Larimer Street area. There he would use the shelters to eat,
shower, pick-up his mail, look for an odd job or two to make extra money, hang-out
with other homeless people, and buy heroin.
On the day I accompanied him to the shelter for our injection observation, I
discovered Bobby had only known Kurt a few months. It was a warm and sunny
day and the shelters courtyard, which was a popular hangout, was very crowded.
Walking through all the people, suddenly he stopped to talk to an enormous man.
Other than his size, the blonde man who was in his early 40s did not look much
different than any of the other homeless at the shelter. His size, however, was
impressive. Standing six feet, four inches tall and weighing at least 250 pounds, his
chest was as big as a barrel and his arms looked like tree trunks. His hands were
oversized and swollen like clubs. He spoke softly and quickly to Bobby as his eyes
shifted over the courtyard crowd. He was looking for someone and hardly glanced at
me before he disappeared back into the crowd.
It was unclear to me what was happening. The number of people in the
courtyard made me a little nervous and the guy whom Bobby talked to did not look
friendly. Bobby sensed my discomfort and told me, He is looking for whos
holding (i.e. the person who had the heroin). I was confused, but Bobby did not
seem bothered. After some time waiting and smoking cigarettes in the courtyard we
were eventually signaled over by the giant who was now standing on the sidewalk
outside the shelter.
As Bobby and I walked out of the shelter he introduced me: Kurt, this is
Lee, the guy who works at the university I told you about. Kurt gave me an
expressionless once over and greeted me, Hey. Pointing to the Alpine Hotel on the
comer of Park Avenue West and Curtis Street next to the shelter, he continued, We
are going over here... if anyone asks, you just say you are visiting someone. Then,
looking at both of us he said, The manager has been getting pissed about all the
visitors lately so just be cool. I didnt say a word as we entered the Alpine.
The Alpine was (and still is) a small, very inexpensive, fleabag hotel. The
owner rented rundown rooms by the week. Most of the occupants were migrant
workers from Mexico and Central Americasingle men making the transition from
being homeless, or just people taking a break from their regular lives.
Figure 1.1. Photograph of Larimer area. Day shelter (right) and weekly rate hotel
(left): I meet Kurt at this shelter and my first interaction with him and Danny
occurred in the adjacent hotel.
No one was at the desk in the foyer when we entered so the three of us just
walked quickly up the stairs and into almost total darkness. For being such a bright
day outside, it was amazing how dark it became in the hallway. Everyone was quiet.
I followed Kurt with Bobby behind me. Mexican pop music was coming from one of
the rooms we passed. We walked by a few people in the hall who were indifferent to
our presence. We got to a room and Kurt knocked and said softly, Its me. The
door lock clicked and opened; we went in.
The room was small and dilapidated. The first thing I noticed was that the
wood floor and plaster walls were bowed. The whole room looked warped. Two
people were already in the room as the three of us crammed in. I was motioned to
the only chair and sat. There was a bed in the room and two chairs. There was a
small sink and nightstand next to the bed. There was no bathroom. No light was on
in the room and the only illumination came from the window that was wide open
and looked down on the street from where we just came. On the floor I noticed some
clothes, a sleeping bag and green duffel bags pushed against the wall.
The first person I noticed in the room was a Hispanic user in his late 60s that
I had interviewed several times over the last few months named Tony. He was a
kind, frail old man with silver hair who only injected heroin intermittently. He could
never afford a heroin habit and lived being shuttled from family member to family
member. I was a little relived to see a face I already knew and who knew me. He
recognized me immediately. Smiling he said slowly, Heeey, how are you? Nice to
see you again. His eyes were glazed and he looked tired. He was high and
The other figure in the room, also a Hispanic male around the same age as
Tony, looked completely different. Wearing mirrored sunglasses, and with silver hair
cropping out from under his black baseball cap, he glared ominously at me and was
checking me out the moment I entered. Kurt introduced me, This is... Mickey.
Mickey was a fake name Danny decided to use when we first meet. This only
lasted for our first few meetings. I nodded hello. Mickey, really Danny, looked
like a gangster. I noticed several faded tattoos of prison quality, which now looked
like dark green splotches on his wrinkled skin. Only one was recognizable: a naked
woman on his forearm. He did not say anything for a long time after the
introduction. He just stared at me.
I introduced myself again to the group and gave my standard introduction.
My name is Lee Hoffer. I work for Urban Links at the University of
Colorado Health Sciences Center. We do research on drug injection and drug use
practices. I have worked for Urban Links for about a year. Right now we are doing a
study to try and understand heroin injection practices and develop better ways to
help users avoid diseases. We are putting together an intervention to assist users in
The group listened but looked bored with my presentation. It was a common
response. Often heroin users I interviewed did not understand or care much about
what I was really doing until I spent more time with them. At first their interests
were usually about the money or subject fees.
I continued, The research we are doing is funded by a grant from the Federal
government. Anything you tell me, or that I see, will remain confidential and is
protected by a Federal Certificate of Confidentiality (appendix A). You never have
to tell me your real or last name. That doesnt matter to me. Pulling a laminated
copy of the certificate out of my bag, I continued, ... This is the certificate. It says
that anything we discuss is confidential and that the police or any other law
enforcement agency cannot use the data against you. Just to let you know, I always
keep a copy of this certificate on me. It protects me from having my data
confiscated. I can give any of you a copy of this after we are done if you would
like. [There was a pause.]
Kurt spoke first. It was clear by his straightforward demeanor, seriousness,
and eye contact that he and Danny were in charge of the ragtag group assembled in
the room, So what... you pay to watch us inject? he said gruffly.
My reply was well rehearsed, No, technically I cannot pay you for or even
before the injection but I can pay to interview you after the injection about what
happened. My wording was precise because I had to be clear that the Federal
government cannot pay users to buy drugs and get high. This sequence was usually
confusing. Kurt continued, Okay, heres the deal. Bobby and me will use the room
next door. You can watch Mickey here. Ill come back in a little while to get you.
And with that Kurt and Bobby left the room.
Like other heroin addicts I met on the streets, Kurts introduction to heroin
was a gradual one, and almost benign. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he casually
tried the drug once or twice at parties. It wasnt a big thing as he put it. However,
around the early 1990s he started using heroin slightly more consistently and
regularly, especially on the weekends. These increases in his heroin use were
separated by periods of time that he did not use the drug. Furthermore, each
progression was initiated by specific life events that seemed to place him in
environments where he had better access to the drug. The trend for Kurt, as it is
with many occasional heroin users, was that as heroin became more available to him
within the context of his life, he used it more consistently. This inadvertent
progression in use evolved into an everyday event and an addiction to the drug, or
Kurt was bright and had attended two local colleges in the 1960s and 1970s
where he received good grades. Ironically, in school he studied to be a drug and
alcohol counselor. He even worked and was trained in a Denver based residential
therapeutic community corrections center to run drug treatment group therapy. But
to finance his education, Kurt helped his brother sell marijuana. It was a way for him
to make easy money, and his connections with college kids, who were always good
customers, made it that much easier. This dual existence in the drug using sub-culture
and the straight world was challenging for him. The circumstances were in place for
Kurt to make a mistake. Becoming involved with more hard-core drug using
populations at the treatment center while continuing to sell marijuana was an
enticing combination of temptations.
Kurt: No, Im no dummy, man.
I was in Arizona when I got my GED. I was going to college before I
was supposed to graduate out of high school.
Lee\ And you were also going to college here, werent you?
Kurt: Yeah. I went to Community College and then Metro. That was the
last college I went to. I got a lot of hours and shit, man. A lot of credit hours
and I had counseling classes when I worked for the university, you know.
At Pier One, Ive got like 3,000 hours of fucking running groups. I mean,
Ive talked to people, you know. 3,000 hours of running groups? Ive got
eight to nine people in a group and Im the group leader. You learn a lot from
Lee: How did you get from there onto the street?
Kurt: I never really left the street, I guess. I was married, you know, and
had a trailer house and all that shit. I started doing drugs, man. Started doing
hard core drugs. I mean, I was selling weed and going to college and pulling a
3.3 average, you know. And then... I get pissed off at the fucking professor,
who gave me a low grade, you know. I almost made the Deans list, but I
never did .. .One time I was real close.
While I was unable to verify that Kurt almost made the Deans list at Metro,
I was able to learn that he had worked at a local treatment center and that he sold
weed with his brother while he went to school. His more hard-core drug use
described above was heroin and cocaine. At that time, he used more heroin than
cocaine. Drug use cost him his budding career as a counselor and he dropped out of
school. The theme of being on the verge of a legitimate lifestyle and then falling into
illegal drug use activities was a recurrent one in Kurts life. At that time Kurt was
also a heavy drinker. And it was this combination of factors that altered Kurts
ability to make it in the straight world.
Before getting into heroin, Kurt was an alcoholic. During his life, drinking
would constantly be a problem for him. Just a few months prior to our first meeting
at the Alpine, his most recent job was as a delivery driver and assistant manager at
Steps, a local shelter for alcoholics. Having kicked his drinking problem one more
time in the program, Kurt enjoyed working and serving as sort of a role model for the
other residents. Unfortunately, once again circumstances presented themselves for
Kurt to use heroin and this time the change would affect his life more permanently.
Lee\ (about the shelter) Now how long did you work down there?
Kurt: I worked for them for a year. But I'd been in and out of the place, right?
All they had was AA meetings and actually they set up a NA meeting once
in a while and every other week they got a church group to come in. And like
you got three meetings to 10:00, curfew is 10:00, Monday through Friday,
clean your area, clean the kitchen area. You can do your own cooking and
shit like that. You got to be there at 7:00 Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and
Thursdays for the meetings. You got to show up unless you're working,
unless you got a legitimate excuse not to be there.
On the weekends, after you've been there, you had to be there like
two weekends but your third weekend you can sign out on Friday and go and
do whatever you fucking want. Come back Sunday at 10:00.
No pressure and there's hardly anybody ever court appointed. It's
almost all voluntary. Well, most of the referrals are coming from detox and
shit like that.
Lee: How did you get there?
Kurt: Same thing. I was drunker than a skunk and ended up in Washington
House (another shelter) and they said to try this place out, so I did.
But I cleaned up, got sober, made some money and took off, you
know. That's what all these people do. They do that for a couple of months
and move on.
When I first got there I was just drinking, light stuff. Actually, the
maintenance man, Ralph, right? We just started talking and he said, "Yeah, I
used to shoot a little fucking Chiva (heroin) a long time ago." Actually I had
done some Chiva about a year or two before but it was just a once in a while
thing, you know. So Ralph says, "Hey, man. Why don't you give me a ride
over here. I can get some real good shit on the North Side." So like every
weekend, I started giving him a ride up to the North Side.
Lee: When you guys got your release on the weekend?
Kurt: Yeah, but I still wasn't strung out or nothing. Then I left the place and
whatever, went out and got drunk, came back again ...
Lee : Drinking again?
Kurt: Yeah, pretty much. That was the easiest way to get in, you know.
The last time, I got a job. I had been there about two months, you
know, the guy running the place was paying me about $15,000, free room
and board. I made pick-ups, free food. I'm getting televisions, getting
Lee: Pick-ups, what do you mean?
Kurt: Donations. People donating shit all the time. Yeah, I was on the
payroll for a year. Paid taxes and everything. I cleared $591 every two
weeks. That was good money for no bills... Yeah, no bills, everything was
paid, except clothes. I was paid fucking cash.
Lee: Was that when you started using more heroin?
Kurt: Yeah, Ralph wasn't using anything then but I made a good connection
and fuck, I had a new van and everything for the pick-ups. I would say, "I
got to go make a pickup. I'll be back in 30 minutes." I didn't tell them what I
was picking up, you know.
Kurt developed his addiction to heroin on the job. The combination of a
consistent supply of cash, a connection, and transportation gave him the ability to
afford the habit. But using heroin while working at Steps did not last long. He was
forced out when a resident in the program reported on him. Drug use was strictly
prohibited at the shelter. After finding a syringe in a room search one of the
managers, who had a personality conflict with Kurt anyway, found the perfect
opportunity to boot him. No longer having a home or wife, both lost due to his
stints drinking, Kurt had nowhere to go but onto the streets.
The homeless lifestyle did not upset Kurt at this time, however. He already
knew many of the homeless people in the area from working at the shelter and
spending his free time on the streets. His challenge was more about how he could
maintain his heroin addiction without a job. It was at this time that Kurt became
partners with a former Steps resident whom he had briefly known: Danny.
Figure 1.2. Photograph of Kurt and the author in Larimer area alleyway, circa 1996.
Kurt is injecting heroin into his foot. (Photograph taken by Ursula Lauper)
Kurt and Danny met at Steps although their experience there and histories
prior to meeting were vastly different. Danny was staying there because even though
he did not have a drinking problem (he didnt even drink), he had been able to hustle
himself a room by saying he was a former alcoholic. He wanted to stay there because
as he told me, They had the cheapest rooms... and they were clean. But Danny
kept to himself at the shelter and did not interact and get involved in things the way
Danny came from a very different world than Kurt. As much as Kurts
addiction to heroin almost seemed like an accident, Dannys was a career. Compared
to Kurt or most users I met doing research, Danny had a long and consistent
experience using heroin. His heroin habit was an old friend he was accustomed to
living with. Danny started using heroin in New York City in the 1950s. At twenty-
five Danny was a pimp and two girls who worked for him introduced him to the
drug. He liked it from the start, and with the money he made, accompanied by how
good the dope was, it did not take long before he became addicted. Ever since then,
one way or another, he maintained his habit. With close to fifty years of experience
with heroin, Danny was a well-seasoned veteran of the heroin lifestyle.
While his history was punctuated by several lengthy stays in prison in
California, which were impossible for me to verify or cross-reference, Danny spent
the majority of his life in New Mexico and the Southwest. There, Danny sold some
marijuana and cocaine, but he primarily distributed heroin for dealers in Southern
California and Denver. Danny ran the heroin trade in the small New Mexican town
where he lived.
The story of how Danny came to Denver was disjointed and hard to piece
together. It seemed that he came to Denver because one evening he received a phone
call from a partner that the local sheriff was coming to arrest him. A warrant was out
for his arrest for dealing and he was facing serious time. Danny did not dawdle. That
night he packed a bag and left. He hitchhiked to Colorado. Although he only knew a
little about the city, he chose Denver because he had a few dealing associates on the
Westside. He had also heard of the Larimer street area and its drug scene. When he
finally made it to town he told the driver to drop him off on Larimer Street. He
walked into town and got a room at Steps.
With more than forty years worth of experience dealing and using heroin,
Danny was in the twilight of his career. He had come to Denver, as he framed it, to
retire. This was a real consideration for Danny because with his record, he told me
he would get the Big Bitch (life) if he was arrested again for narcotics distribution.
He needed to maintain a low profile. When we met that day at the Alpine he was
supporting his meager heroin habit and weekly room off his Social Security and
Disability checks. But this existence did not last long. Danny was a survivor and
thrived at being able to exploit opportunities available to him.
The following figure summarizes the differences between the two dealers.
These differences impacted how the dealers eventually organized and managed their
Age 42, white
Physically imposing, gregarious and
No arrest, jail, or prison record
Benign introduction to using heroin
Some college education
Worked as a drug counselor
Previous history selling marijuana
Alcohol problems resulted in
Was the primary salesman in the
Age 74, Hispanic
Frail physically, suspicious,
quiet and cautious personality
Long arrest, jail, and prison
Long time heroin user, dealer
and former pimp
Recently moved from New
Mexico to Denver
Historic connections to drug
dealers on Denvers Westside
Spoke fluent Spanish
Had connections in local
heroin / cocaine dealing circles
Figure 1.3. Figure noting differences between Kurt and Danny.
Ethnographic Research with Out-Of-Treatment Heroin Users
Conducting street-based field research with heroin users is challenging and
risky if simple steps are not followed. Being honest and gaining the trust of the drug
users protects the researcher, but care needs to be taken not to be too pushy with
users in these situations. From my experience, if the heroin users did not get over the
possibility that I was the police in these first few moments, continuing could be
very difficult, and sometimes even impossible. I always treaded lightly in these
instances and did not make any demands. Ironically, it also helped that I was young
and could act naive about heroin use. To many of the users this fact reduced the
potential threat I posed to them. I was twenty-seven years old when I began this
research project. To assist this process I had a script, which standardized my
The introduction I used was not something written; rather it was a way I
presented what I did that I had memorized as a matter of countless trial and error
tests and refinements. From doing interviews I learned the easiest and most direct
way to frame what I was doing so users would understand. Each unique study
required some minor refinements in the study explanation, but for the most part it
was the same for all interviews.
I would start by telling the users my full name, that I worked for Urban
Links, and a little something about myself. By giving them information about me I
was demonstrating that I was not afraid to get personal and engage in an exchange of
information. Sometimes at these introductions I would tell users I was a student or
how long I had been doing this sort of work or some other small tidbit about my life.
I would also combine this semi-personal stuff with small talk about recent events
that happened in the area. This I did to let the users know that I did not just come
down to the streets to interview them and leave as if I was visiting animals in a zoo.
As part of this research, I was spending significant time in the area and cared about
what happened to the people there. For example, the week when I met Danny and
Kurt a very large arrest of several Honduran drug dealers had occurred in the streets
of the area. Tony started talking about this with Danny after Kurt and Bobby left. I
said I saw a report about it in the paper and was surprised. I hear the cops are
putting some pressure on the area. Where did the arrest go down? I asked. Danny
responded to both of us, Jezzz, right here. Right out that window... on the street
down there. Hell, I was sleeping. It was crazy. Lotta cops... [Pause] They had them
against the wall and everything... right out there. Crazy.
But my individual comportment, skills, and capability were not the only
things that affected my ability to achieve rapport with the heroin users I interviewed
and observed. The nature of ethnographic research might lead one to think that
rapport is based solely on the work of the individual researcher. After all, I was
alone at all of these encounters and had to deal with the interactions by myself. I
was really never alone, however. I found that the reputation of Urban Links was
important to mention. Urban Links staff and its director Dr. Steven Koester had a
solid reputation among drug users. Many locals, who usually heard stories about
research projects in the area, knew our staff. The people on the streets understood
that Urban Links staff members were honest or, straight up, as one user put it.
This significantly assisted gaining trust and developing rapport with the street-based
heroin users I meet.
A researcher should not overlook the strength of informal information
networks of local street junkies. The reputation of our research was key. In the
minds of the users, I was not a stranger from the medical school but rather part of
a group of researchers in the area who cared about helping the people they worked
with. Often when describing Urban Links I would find out that users were familiar
with the staff. This was very helpful in making inroads into developing rapport with
groups of heroin injectors. It also helped because the reputation of the researchers at
Urban Links also suggested that I wasnt naive about heroin use. This associated
understanding was helpful in reducing the number of times I could be hustled (see
The final way I gained my informants trust at these initial meetings was by
being direct and by discussing the most important aspects of my research to them as
soon as possible. The two issues typically of most concern to the users I
interviewed were compensation (i.e. money) and confidentiality. The Confidentiality
Certificate that research projects funded by the Department of Health and Human
Services are granted specifically outlines the privacy of subjects and their protection
from anyone not involved in the study (see appendix A). The wording of this
document is straightforward:
Under authority vested in the Secretary of Health and Human Services by
that section, all persons who -
1. are employed by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and
its contractors and cooperating agencies; and
2. have, in the course of that employment, access to the information which
would identify individuals who are the subjects of a research project entitled
A Study of Individual / Network HIV Interventions for IDU, are hereby
authorized to protect the privacy of the individuals who are the subjects of
that research by withholding their names and other identifying characteristics
from all persons not connected with the conduct of that research.
On a few occasions I read portions of it to potential subjects I met. It helped. After
deciding whether or not I was the police, the knowledge that the information we
collected could not be taken by law-enforcement and used against them was the
second most important concern in the users minds. I used the certificate many times
to help users understand that my intentions were legitimate and research oriented.
This certificate may seem like a minor and insignificant item but I used it
successfully as a prop for legitimacy. It was official paperwork written in official
language and the users believed it.
I also used the certificate as personal protection when transporting data in
the field and I told users this. My most recurrent and common fear doing this sort of
research was always related to the data I collected. I was not overly worried that the
police were going to crash through the hotel room door at the Alpine and arrest me.
The Denver police did not have a reputation of being aggressive in these sorts of
ways. I was also not overly concerned that my subjects would do anything to harm
me. There was no cause for me to worry about this because I was not somewhere or
doing something that they had not approved of beforehand. I was always invited
into situations. They also knew I was working for the university and other people
knew where I was. Nonetheless, I was always worried once I collected my data that
the police would stop me walking or driving back to the office.
Doing this sort of research on heroin users, I almost always possessed
incriminating evidence in the form of interview tapes and field notes. If a police
officer had stopped me just to find out the contents of my bag, tapes, or notebooks,
I would have had some explaining to do. I knew confidential data would have been
a contentious reply. On a previous project I had interviewed a few police officers
and asked afterwards about the real-life protection offered by this certificate.
They assured me my data would be safe and that the police respected research
situations and knew about research being conducted in specific areas of the city. But
was this true? Urban Links staff often discussed hypothetical scenarios in these
sorts of situations with our director. We decided to say that we were conducting
confidential health related research and that we had a certificate to prove it. I am
very happy to report that I never had to put any of this or the Confidentiality
Certificate to a true test, for it is not clear anywhere in the certificate that the
researcher is immune from prosecution for being witness to illegal activities.
The Setting and Overview
In 1993, the only open-air street-based heroin market, from which Kurt and
Dannys dealing network eventually emerged, was the Larimer Street area north of
downtown Denver. At this time a monopoly of small-time immigrant dealers
dominated the streets. These dealers were foreign nationals from Mexico, Nicaragua,
Honduras, and a hodgepodge of other Central and South American countries. Their
primary aim in coming to Colorado and dealing drugs was to make money for their
families back home. The majority of these sellers did not use drugs. But this
monopoly of the street market also extended to higher levels of dealing. Many of the
street sellers who were independent entrepreneurs got their heroin from the same
sources. This set-up was a reality that local Denver based heroin users who lived in
the area could do little about; it was a fact of their existence.
Late in 1994, this street market set-up started to change based on a host of
activities that occurred in that particular area of the city. During this fortuitous and
ironic combination of police pressure, gentrification, and urban redevelopment Kurt
and Danny launched their partnership-selling heroin. At the time they were both
homeless heroin addicts surviving on the fringe of society. While they had come to
the area from different backgrounds, both were living similar lifestyles. With
relatively small heroin habits, Kurt and Danny injected what heroin they could
through brokering deals for other buyers coming into the area or by combining
resources with other temporary partners who also lived on the streets. Neither Kurt
nor Danny had a steady income, and their future looked bleak. However, their
existence was not dissimilar to many of their counterparts in the area.
Since the 1950s the Larimer Street area of downtown Denver had always
been home to men and women who were not quite making it in normal society for
whatever reason. Many of these people were in their situation and in the area
temporarily, eventually transitioning to work and an existence in mainstream
society. However, many could not make that adjustment. Heroin users, alcoholics,
and other drug addicts were more often than not permanent residents on the streets
and Kurt and Danny had joined their ranks. Contrasting this existence over the
course of this study time frame to how their lives changed through their heroin
dealing is impressive.
By late 1999, prior to the abrupt end of the network, Kurt and Danny were
living a lifestyle that had very little resemblance to where they started. They were
safe. They lived in a large clean apartment that occupied the entire first floor of a
house in a quiet residential neighborhood. They had a backyard with a rose garden.
They always had food on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They paid their
bills on time. They had free time to pursue leisure activities like bingo. They even
had money in savings to purchase a van. Heroin was not an issue either. They had all
the heroin they could possibly inject and had taken their habits to the limit. Their
lifestyle had come a long way from where it began. In fact, the transition seemed
almost unbelievable. But even though their lives and status had changed significantly,
and there were very clear material benefits to dealing heroin, it was not an easy
existence. The reality was quite to the contrary.
Developing and keeping together a professional, private heroin dealing
business was extremely challenging for Kurt and Danny. Kurt, who was simply
overwhelmed by the work, was a businessman with entrepreneurial skills and
abilities that by any standard would be impressive and admired. His skill was not in
question. The issue was, as this research shows, the work in this case was not a
matter of doing the job and making sales. At this point in their careers sales were
routine and usually uncomplicated. The most complex component of the heroin-
dealing network was maintaining relations with customers through the sales process.
It was the customers that the network depended upon, since they provided the
profits so that Kurt and Danny had what they needed. It was the customers
incomes that were the aim of sales. Good customers were the foundation of their
This ethnography uses a comprehensive perspective toward understanding
heroin dealing. Social, cultural, economic, as well as psychological components of the
dealers lives are addressed throughout the course of interpreting their world.
However, the most important aspect of the existence this research investigates is the
exchange between customers and dealers. It is within this micro interactive
environment that fundamental features of heroin dealing are revealed. Kurts and
Dannys dealing success indicated clearly that heroin dealing is not a free-for-all
activity void of rules and regulations. Their network was replete with rules that were
both formalized and informal. It was these rules and how Kurt and Danny monitored
their customers adherence to them that gave the network its ability to function. The
finding that behaviors were organized for both dealers and customers within the
network contradicts common notions that drug dealing at these lower levels is
chaotic and random. This finding also calls into question aspects of heroin dealing
that many heroin users believe. For example, the notion that heroin dealing can free a
heroin user from responsibility, stress, and misery due to the economic advantages it
offers is not supported by this research. The world of the free enterprise heroin
dealer was not free at all.
An Introduction to Aspects of Heroin Dealing
Before discussing Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing network, the research
methods used, or the findings of this study, it is important that several aspects of
heroin dealing are understood. This background pertains to heroin addiction and the
economic cost of such an addiction, as well as the influences of heroin potency and
other local heroin market considerations. None of these factors should be taken for
granted or overlooked in any study of heroin dealing.
Heroin Addiction, the Heroin Habit, and the Dealers Habit
A heroin addiction is psychically, emotionally, and socially significant in a
heroin users life. All the heroin users described in this ethnography had heroin
addictions. Not all heroin users have addictions, or habits. Many occasional users of
the drug never develop the symptoms of addiction. Nonetheless, becoming addicted
to heroin is easy and only takes a few weeks of consistent and repeated use.
A heroin habit1 is the term used by heroin users to reference being addicted
to the drug. An addiction to heroin is neuropharmacologically complex but
straightforward to understand behaviorally. Taking repeated doses of heroin, a
persons body becomes accustomed to the drugs presence and effects. This
habituation is important. Once this state is reached, if the body does not receive its
typical dose of the drug, withdrawal symptoms occur. The timeframe for the onset
of these withdrawal symptoms varies individually among heroin addicts, but
generally they start to develop within twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the last
ingestion of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and consist of fever,
sweating, chills, inability to concentrate, headache, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea,
anxiety, insomnia, and other flu like symptoms. Withdrawal lasts between one and
two weeks before symptoms start to subside. More importantly, if heroin is
injected during withdrawal a heroin user is relieved of symptoms within minutes and
Because the intensity of each individual heroin users addiction is different,
cost is used as an index to compare addiction intensities. For example, a forty dollar
habit means a person is currently using $40 worth of heroin per day. This habit size,
Terms in bold text are further described and cross-referenced in the glossary of terms, page 476.
in turn, indicates a specific threshold of use. The amount noted ($40) is also what is
necessary to avoid withdrawal. Socially, this is important because it denotes how
much money the user needs to spend on heroin to avoid becoming sick. The ever-
present threat of going into withdrawal is a serious consideration in decision making.
Many users become desperate when such situations develop. Heroin users also
generally believe that the more heroin a person is using (i.e. the larger the habit) the
more severe and difficult withdrawal off the drug will be. Along these lines, some
even believe a user can die from withdrawal off very large daily heroin habits.
Being dope sick, or sick, is the term heroin users use to identify both those
desperate times before withdrawal and also being in withdrawal. Importantly,
sickness starts prior to full-scale withdrawal. During this timeframe a heroin user
does not feel well or normal and knows full-scale withdrawal is on the way if
nothing more is done. Being anxious, edgy, unable to concentrate, and/or frantic are
examples of the emotional states of heroin users who are sick. However, being dope
sick also refers to being in full-scale withdrawal. The difference in these states is a
matter of scale. During withdrawal a user can literally be incapacitated and unable to
function due to the symptoms mentioned above.
Getting well is the term used by heroin addicts for reversing heroin sickness
by using heroin. An important point here is that even though the heroin user is using
heroin, in these instances getting well does not mean getting high. Rather, this sort of
heroin use only results in the user feeling better so they can function normally.
Getting high or feeling the euphoria of heroin use can only occur after there is
enough drug in the body to be well. Because of these habituation effects, to get high
a heroin user must use ever-increasing doses of the drug over their already
established heroin habit.
The differences between getting high and staying well are important. Heroin
users who are addicted to the drug are first and foremost motivated to stay well.
Once they are well, then and only then can they focus on getting high. Another way
to view this situation is that avoiding withdrawal is the first and foremost criteria of
heroin users. Only after this state is achieved can they focus on getting high. Many
people who do not understand heroin use and this habituation process assume
heroin users are always getting high when they use the drug. This is not the case.
Heroin users with larger habits spend the majority of their time just trying to stay
Understanding heroin habits and the effect of addictions on users behavior is
particularly relevant to heroin dealers who also use the drug. Having access to greater
amounts of the drug than the ordinary users, heroin dealers who are addicted to
heroin often develop very large daily drug habits. Weaning ones self off any level of
heroin use is difficult. At issue here is that the body will start going into withdrawal
once the level of heroin within it is reduced. For example, if a heroin user has a $60 a
day habit and reduces his or her intake to $20 per day, they will experience
withdrawal symptoms from the reduction until their body adjusts to the new
dosage. Maintaining a consistent level of heroin within the body is the only sure
way a heroin addict can avoid sickness.
A dealers habit is a specific type of heroin habit that heroin users
recognize. These habits are different because only dealers who have apparently
limitless access to heroin can afford to use this level of drug. And while there is no
rule about the size of a dealers habit, habits of $100 or more per day are not
uncommon. As will be noted later in this research, a dealers habit does have limits.
But the limits of a dealers habit relate more to the maximum amount of heroin that
can be injected and not to direct economic limitations or costs. This is not to say the
economic costs of such habits are unimportant to dealers. A dealers habit is
important economically to the dealer, however these costs need to be disentangled
from the profit margins the dealer generates. This complex process is dealt with later
in this analysis.
Both Kurt and Danny had what would be considered dealers habits for the
majority of the time of this research study. During the peak of their dealing, each
dealer injected a gram of heroin per day and usually injected twice per day (once in
the morning and once in the late afternoon). For a six-month period of this research,
Danny injected two grams per day. At a retail price of $130 per gram, Danny was
maintaining a $260 dollar a day heroin habit. These amounts were so large that when
Kurt and Danny injected, the heroin (once heated and mixed with water) would not
fit in one syringe barrel. This meant that each injection required a full syringe plus
half of a second.
The level of heroin use of Kurt and Dannys dealer habits introduces a
unique set of injection-related risks uncommon to the majority of heroin users with
addictions. As noted in detail later in this research, issues such as the amount of the
drug being injected, frequency of injections, and resulting vascular damage were all
critical considerations not commonly applicable to most users. In contrast, overdose
was not a concern for Kurt and Danny because it would have been very difficult (if
not impossible) for either of them to inject an amount of drug large enough at one
sitting to overload their systems.
Heroin in Denver was expensive, and how the customer addressed this
expense was important. Over the course of this research, the smallest and least
expensive unit of heroin commonly sold in Denver was a pill. A pill of heroin cost
$20 retail and was generally 1/9 to 1/15 of a gram in weight. A 1/2-gram of heroin
typically sold for $70 and a gram of heroin sold for $130. When considering these
costs it is important to remember that in many instances these expenses are daily
expenditures. Extrapolating a small $20-a-day habit, the most inexpensive of heroin
habits would cost $7,200 annually.
Because of the problems with habituation and withdrawal mentioned above,
a heroin addiction cannot be budgeted in a straightforward manner. Both external and
internal issues conspire to complicate matters.
Foregoing for a moment the considerable external influences that can
confound this process (e.g. retail price changes), a heroin user with an addiction is
motivated to get high. Getting high is the reason for using the drug in the first place.
Often times, to do this a heroin user must buy and use an amount of drug greater
than the amount they have currently habituated to. However, the major problem in
spending increasingly more money on heroin is that very soon a user can become
addicted to a dose of heroin more expensive than they can afford. This iterative
process quickly outstrips the amount of money a heroin addict informally budgets.
But the increased costs of an addiction are not always an issue of a users self-
control. Cost can also be affected by a number of external influences.
If the dealer whom an addict is using increases their prices, the cost of the
users habit increases. Increased pressures of a heroin habit also occur if a heroin
addict loses their job or source of income. Without a consistent level of resources, a
users drugs habit can quickly become unaffordable. But more complicated factors
can also affect a users cost.
Often, after prolonged relationships, dealers and customers work out deals
where the customer might not have to pay the full price for the drug. Inevitably, at
one time or another most heroin users end up short the amount of money they need
to buy the drugs they have become accustomed to using. How many times or how
often they are short varies, but inevitably it will happen. The term credit describes
when a heroin user receives the amount of heroin they want without having to pay
the full price for the drug upon delivery. The credit difference is owed to the dealer,
and the expectation is that what is owed will be paid at a later date. In other words,
if a customer is short, a dealer can give the user the drug with the expectation that
the balance will be paid later. These sorts of relationships, which can be common,
reduce the immediate costs of the drug to the customer. But if a dealer with whom a
customer has established a relationship, gets arrested, the immediate pressures of
purchasing the drug increases because they will have to find a new dealer one
which they will not have this same sort of relationship with initially. By being
forced to pay full prices the user cannot buy as much heroin and faces withdrawal.
Cost is also related to another factor: potency. If the potency of the drug the
addict is using is reduced, the cost of the users habit increases because the user must
buy and use more of the drug to stave off withdrawal.
Heroin is not a commodity that is regulated in any way. There are no external
standards that assure when a heroin user buys the drug that they are getting a high
quality product. Pure heroin is cut, or mixed, with various constituents to increase
the total supply of the drug. Such processing happens at various stages during
distribution and affects both dealers and customers. As noted, if a customer buys
heroin and the quality of that product is not up to the standards of their previous
purchase it presents problems to them in avoiding withdrawal. They may have to
purchase more of the drug to achieve the same effects that purchasing less of it did.
A customer wants to avoid such circumstances.
A heroin dealer is also affected by the potency of the heroin they are selling
(and most likely also using). Selling less potent heroin jeopardizes their ability to
maintain customers. This is because customers might defect to another dealer with
better heroin. As heroin addicts, dealers also have to use larger amounts of less
potent heroin to achieve the effects of more potent heroin. But dealers want to also
avoid selling heroin that is much more potent than what they have been selling.
Like a customer, a heroin dealer purchases the amount of heroin they intend
to sell from a supplier. If a supplier sells a dealer higher potency heroin it presents a
very direct and easy opportunity for the dealer to increase profits. They can do this
by increasing their supply. But they can only sell heroin at an increased profit by
making it less potent. Dealers avoid selling higher potency heroin directly to the
customers because they can step on the drug and make more of it, which in turn,
makes their supply more profitable. Stepping on a drug refers to mixing and hence
diluting it with some other (usually inactive) substance to increase the overall
amount of drug available to sell. If a dealer can step on the drug but decides not to,
they forgo potential profits. Another important issue also comes into play.
Dealers want to avoid overdosing their customers. Even if customers might
want to find dealers with killer dope (i.e., very high potency heroin) a dealer does
not really want to sell that sort of product. While this sort of heroin would attract
customers, a dead customer today cannot buy heroin tomorrow. What is optimal for
a dealer is to sell heroin that is slightly more potent than the average. This way,
customers are happy and come back for more, but the dealer is not losing money or
Local Heroin Market Issues
Within any heroin market, a dealers ability to control the potency of the
heroin they sell varies. While the process and mechanisms of each dealers operation
differs, a subject detailed later in this report, for now it is important to understand
many heroin dealers do not have a choice in the product they sell. The majority of
heroin dealers are like customers in that they have to purchase the drugs they sell.
Also like customers, they often do not have options concerning whom they buy
heroin from. Considering the hieratic nature of drug dealing economies, as the amount
of heroin purchased increases, the number of suppliers selling those amounts
decreases. While there might be hundreds of dealers selling pills on the street, there
are only a fraction of that number supplying these dealers with heroin.
In the Denver heroin market that is described in this report, heroin potency
did not vary significantly between dealers. There were dealers with better dope than
others, however the range was limited. Finding and buying more potent heroin from
dealers was often not a realistic option for many heroin users. Because of this
limitation, customers who wanted to get high usually had to buy increasing doses of
the drug. Access was also an issue. Kurt and Danny sold heroin that was more
potent than many other dealers heroin in the area, but their operation was not open
and available for any customer to utilize. They sold heroin out of their home and did
not directly market their wares on the street to strangers.
Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing network and their exchange relationships
with customers were shaped by several factors. Their backgrounds, how they began
selling heroin, and the initial level of their sales all framed what their business would
later become. When they began selling heroin they sold pills and other small
quantities of the drug on the streets to customers who were associates they had
known for years. This history was critical, but while their personal relationships
and activities were important to their success, less personal factors also shaped their
business and its evolution.
Overview of Chapters
This dissertation is organized into twelve chapters. Chapter two describes
the ethnographic design and methods this project utilized. Both observational and
interviewing processes are detailed. Immersion in the daily lives of the studys
participants was critical for the ethnographic aspect of this work. Of particular
interest in this chapter is how rapport was developed and maintained. Considering
the highly illegal activities of heroin dealers and heroin users, rapport issues will be
at the forefront of the methodological discussion. By addressing rapport, this
chapter notes internal validity issues relevant to results made. In other words, why
should anyone think that these heroin users and dealers were honest with me?
Chapter three sets the stage for the description of Kurt and Dannys dealing
network by introducing the reader to previous research that has been conducted on
illegal drug distribution. In particular, noting how theories have delineated different
types of illegal drug distribution organizations, and components of such
organizations, is the chapters primary focus. Chapter three also identifies gaps in
this area of research. After introducing previous research, this chapter outlines the
analytical approach to exchange that this study uses. It is noted that exchange
between dealers and customers provides a framework for connecting notions of a
dealing organizations daily operation with social elements, such as cooperation.
Chapters four through nine present the data. As an ethnography, these
chapters narrate the story of Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing network. This
description outlines a progression in complexity within the two dealers organization
over time. This section details how the business emerged from its humble, freelance,
street-level beginnings to its eventual development into a professional business with
a division of labor. In this series of chapters, interpersonal issues such as self-worth,
identity, and status are intertwined with the establishment of a business.
In chapter four, the street environment and local heroin market from which
Kurt and Dannys organization emerged is detailed. These local contextual
dimensions of the organizations history had direct, important, and long-lasting
impacts upon what their business would later become and how successful it would
Chapter five outlines the beginning of Kurt and Dannys partnership selling
heroin. Both Kurt and Danny were homeless when they began selling heroin, and
they had been homeless for some time. Their connection to other local homeless
heroin users, whom they depended upon before they started dealing, was critical to
their success as dealers. This formative phase would have ramifications on how the
dealers organized their business and exchange relationships with customers in the
years to come.
Chapter six outlines a transition in Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing network:
their move off the streets. In this chapter, the businesss evolution from a street-
based, freelance distribution styled organization to a private, corporate one is
detailed. The transitional process was significant in two ways. First, the business
operation changed. The ways Kurt and Danny sold heroin on the streets was
modified once they moved into an apartment. Second, the dealers were also changing
personally. Kurt and Danny were now full-time heroin dealers. Coming to terms
with this situation significantly altered the two dealers self-image.
Chapter seven describes Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing network in its
most evolved organizational stage. Relative to the networks history, this incarnation
of the business represented how it operated for the majority of its existence. Of
particular interest in this chapter is how Kurt organized his sales relationships with
customers, several of whom also sold heroin. Paramount to Kurts success selling
heroin were his rules. Kurts rules detailed the process by which transactions with
customers were to be handled. They acted to guide and monitor customers behavior.
The way Kurt enforced these rules was by giving credit and forgiving small debts.
This factor of Kurt and Dannys network had far-reaching implications in their
overall success as a business. Credit was also an important feature in forming the
networks social structure, and in many ways this was the single most important
difference in Kurt and Dannys dealing when compared to the other dealers who also
operated though the network they had now established.
Essentially, Kurt and Dannys network was economically successful because
the dealers were able to extend credit to customers who did not have the complete
amount of money to buy the drug at its full retail price. This idea seems, at first, to
run counter to the main dealers purpose (i.e. to make as much money as possible).
However, because the mark-up on the drug he was selling was so large, giving credit
afforded the main dealer latitude in making heroin sales for less than the asking price,
and still glean profits. Using credit in this way, the main dealer was able to make
sales and acquire cash.
In chapter eight, the full extent and implications of economic profits
generated by Kurt and Dannys network are explored. The profits Kurt and Danny
made selling heroin are juxtaposed to subsidiary dealers who operated within the
network. Subsidiary dealers bought heroin from Kurt and Danny and sold it to
customers outside the regular network of customers. Subsidiary dealers enhanced
cash profits by using some of the heroin they sold with the customers to whom they
sold it. This kickdown process is noted as an economic response to these dealers
inability to make enough cash profits to make their sales activities worthwhile. This
links HIV risk with heroin dealing that occurred within the network. In the
observations made on profits, additional issues of supply and demand are also
considered in relation to subsidiary dealers activities.
Chapter nine outlines a failure of Kurt and Dannys network. In an attempt
to expand their business, Kurt and Danny franchised several customers within their
network to take over the majority of the daily sales activities. This plan did not
work and had negative results for the network. Managerial issues are uncovered in
this chapter that highlight the difficulty in the networks ability to grow.
Chapter ten addresses the issue of social exchange within Kurt and Dannys
network. Both motivational and collectivistic theories on exchange are introduced,
and the advantages and disadvantages of both perspectives are outlined. With the
ethnographic description as a backdrop, dealer and customer exchange relationships
within the network are then placed within the context of social exchange theory.
Marshal Sahlins forms of reciprocity (i.e., generalized, balanced, and negative
reciprocity) serve as the primary explanatory framework to understand the
transactions and exchanges observed in Kurt and Dannys network.
Chapter eleven elaborates on the importance of one type of exchange most
frequently observed within the network: balanced exchange. In balanced exchange,
the giver and receiver in an exchange attain equitable benefits from the give and take
process. This chapter demonstrates how by using this form of exchange, Kurt and
Danny were able to form cooperative relationships with their customers that acted
to unify and sustain their business. To demonstrate this process, this chapter frames
the exchange relations between dealers and customers within a different theoretical
context: game theory. Using the Prisoners Dilemma game to create a hypothetical
environment commensurate with the transaction situation of dealers and customers,
this chapter uncovers the mechanisms of cooperation that the network used.
Chapter twelve summarizes the explanatory framework this dissertation
created to explain the operation of Kurt and Dannys network. It concludes by
describing the ultimate demise of Kurt and
which to extend this type of perspective on
recommendations for future research.
Dannys network. In addition, ways in
heroin dealing are also considered in
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
Ethnographic fieldwork is the hallmark of cultural anthropology. Whether in
a jungle village in Peru or on the streets of New York, the anthropologist goes
to where people live and does fieldwork. This means participating in
activities, asking questions, eating strange foods, learning a new language,
watching ceremonies, taking fieldnotes, washing clothes, writing letters home,
tracing out genealogies, observing play, interviewing informants, and
hundreds of other things. (Spradley, 1980: 3)
Dealing, or selling, heroin involves a minimum of two people: a dealer and a
customer. While both parties are important in the process and addressed in this
research, this ethnography is specifically presented from the vantage point of the
dealer. The central informant for this study was the primary dealer in the network:
Kurt. During my sixteen months of research, I got to know what life was like for him
and his partner Danny, both of whose lifestyles revolved around selling heroin.
In anthropology, traditional ethnographic research often focuses on a social
group within a community confined by a geographic location. For example, a village
in Peru, as noted in the quote above, is a traditional research population of an
ethnographic study. Even though such studies are complex and involve tremendous
rigor, the study population is defined by clear boundaries: the members of the village
in this case. But ethnography can also be conducted on communities that are
connected by other relevant aspects of their lives. As Morris notes:
Other researchers have used ethnography with individuals who are separated
geographically but have some aspect of their lives in common, such as being a
diabetic or experiencing a mastectomy. In such cases, participants may be
identified in the community and interviewed in their own homes, and the
experiences of the particular illness provide the basis that allows for the
synthesis of data. (Morse, 1992: 141-2)
In the dealing network, the relevant aspect of members lives that
connected them as a community was the sale and purchase of heroin. From the
perspective of the dealers, I investigated a number of different issues related to the
daily operation of the network. These issues centered on how the dealers arranged
sales with customers, how they developed and maintained these relationships, and
the procedures the dealers used for making judgments about customers through the
sales process. One aspect of this investigation that made addressing these issues
more significant was that the network was successful. Heroin dealing is not easy and
finding out how Kurt and Danny were successful in this business was the starting
point of the investigation.
Aim One: To document exchange between the main dealers (i.e. Kurt and
Danny) and their customers in the network.
Once the operational aspects of dealing were elaborated, my second aim
investigated the outcomes of these processes on the network members lives. As
theories on exchange note, exchange influences and is influenced by the beliefs of the
social group involved. The outcomes or result of the exchange process were
important. Included in this aim was determining the health consequences that result
form heroin dealing, as well as other features of dealer/customer exchange that
impacted members activities.
Aim Two: To understand the outcomes of heroin dealing on network
members injection and related health behaviors.
Ethnography and Fieldwork with Heroin Dealers
Ethnographic research is unique as a research method because it uses semi-
structured and informal interview techniques, participant-observation methods, and
cross-referencing procedures conducted within the environment or setting of the
subjects. To accomplish this sort of research from inside the community, or
communities, a researcher must develop a different sort of relationship with his or
her informant than is customary in survey work. Once the challenge of entering and
being accepted within the study population is accomplished, instead of being
satisfied from simply receiving answers to a questionnaire, the ethnographer must
engage the subjects in an educative process. As Spradley notes:
Ethnography is the work of describing a culture. The central aim of
ethnography is to understand another way of life from the native point of
view.... Fieldwork, then, involves the disciplined study of what the world is
like to people who have learned to see, hear, speak, think, and act in ways
that are different. Rather than studying people, ethnography means learning
from people. (Spradley, 1980: 3)
The ethnographic research is characterized by two activities: in-depth, open-
ended interviewing and participant observation. Before describing how these
methods were operationalized in this study, I will address the strengths of an
ethnographic perspective in studying heroin use and dealing.
Conducting ethnographic research with heroin dealers who engage in highly
illegal activities everyday poses specific methodological challenges uncommon to
studying other social groups. Most vexing is the issue that what the subjects are
doing is illegal, stigmatizing, and unpopular with the public. In addition, the aspect
of their lives that the researcher is most interested in, is likely the one part of their
life they are most reluctant and personally protective about sharing. Many heroin
addicts are ashamed and embarrassed about their addictions. Heroin addicts know
that the criminal or deceitful behaviors that they at times might resort to in order to
get drugs or money for drugs are not acceptable. Dealers, on the other hand, may be
proud of their business acumen, abilities, and accomplishments but are reluctant to
discuss them because they are highly illegal. Trafficking narcotics is a serious
Due to these legal concerns, the dealing network I researched was completely
hidden from the public. The majority of activities that occurred within the network
occurred behind the closed doors of the dealers apartment. In fact, Kurt rarely left
his apartment to conduct business. When business did occur outside the apartment,
meetings between the dealer and customer were brief and subtle. One more factor
that made the network a challenge to study was that the membership of this
community was fluid. There was a core set of customers in the network and their
sales activities made the network function; most of my research was conducted with
this group of network members. However, over the course of my research many
customers came and went, only spending a brief time buying heroin from Kurt.
Among research methods that are available to the social scientist,
ethnographic fieldwork methods are the best suited for understanding the lives of
heroin dealers and their customers. This is because the rapport (or personal
relationships) that a researcher develops with dealers in ethnographic research
provides a way to understand activities while simultaneously overcoming the
barriers noted above. To receive accurate data from a person who wants to protect
it, one must gain their trust. To do that, a researcher must have the latitude to get to
know his or her subjects. Other research methods, namely survey research, do not
allow a researcher that latitude.
Survey research on illegal drug dealing has been problematic for two reasons.
First, the method is directed at minimizing the researcher/subject relationship. In
traditional epidemiological studies, data is collected in an impersonalized manner to
reduce various confounds (Babbie, 1995; Goldenberg, 1992). By sterilizing and
standardizing methods, surveys remove the ability of the researcher to develop
rapport with the subject. In many instances this sort of relationship between the
researcher and subject is preferable, but in the highly charged, illegal, and personal
arena of illegal drug dealing it does not work.
A researcher needs to develop a significant amount of rapport with a heroin
dealer and his or her customers before participants feel comfortable enough to
confide in the researcher. In his research with crack dealers in Spanish Harlem,
Philippe Bourgois notes this problem succinctly.
Most drug users and dealers distrust representatives of mainstream society
and will not reveal their intimate experiences of substance abuse or criminal
enterprise to a stranger on a survey instrument. Consequently, most of the
criminologists and sociologists who painstakingly undertake epidemiological
surveys on crime and substance abuse collect fabrications. (Bourgois, 1997:
Survey research is also hindered by another factor. It does not independently
verify reports that subjects make in interviews using other methods. Disentangling
the truth from falsehoods is critical when conducting research with heroin users, and
has been noted by a number of researchers as being particularly relevant in
understanding dealing activities. Observations are the only way many issues can be
resolved. Observations are important, for example, to independently evaluate the
relations between sellers and buyers. A seller might characterize their relationship
with a dealer in very different ways than the dealer might characterize the
relationship. To overcome such challenges, more in-depth methodologies are
In ethnographic research, the researcher is immersed in the world of the
dealer, participating (as much as legally possible) in the lives of the subjects. Many
researchers have noted the strengths of this methodology in working with drug users
The participant-observation ethnographic techniques developed primarily by
cultural anthropologists since the 1920s are better suited than exclusively
quantitative methodologies for documenting the lives of people who live on
the margins of society that is hostile to them. Only by establishing long-term
relationships based on trust can one begin to ask provocative personal
questions, and expect thoughtful, serious answers. Ethnographers usually
live in the communities they study, and they establish long-term, organic
relationships with the people they write about. In other words, in order to
collect accurate data, ethnographers violate the canons of positivist
research; we become intimately involved with the people we study. (Ibid:
There is a long history of ethnographic research with drug users and dealers
and many of these researchers describe the importance of using an ethnographic
approach. Particia Adler, who worked with high level marijuana smugglers,
comments in her first sentence on methods that:
I strongly believe that investigative field research... with emphasis on direct
personal observation, interaction, and experience, is the only way to acquire
accurate knowledge about deviant behaviors. Investigative techniques are
especially necessary for studying groups such as drug dealers and smugglers
because of the highly illegal nature of their occupation makes them secretive,
deceitful, mistrustful, and paranoid. To insulate themselves from the straight
world, they construct multiple false fronts, offer lies and misinformation, and
withdraw into their group. (Adler, 1985: 11)
Mark Fleisher who also did fieldwork with street-based drug users in 1995 writes in
his ethnography Beggars and Thieves:
On the street, however, verification is tough. Long-term participant
observation, on the street and in prison and jail, does compensate for the lack
of objective means to verify informants claims. Although participant
observation cant take a researcher back into an informants history,
ethnographic research is the only accurate way to verify informants claims
about their current and future behavior. (Fleisher, 1995: 67)
The common theme that these and other researchers have recognized is that
ethnography aims to understand drug users lives in a holistic way through the
researchers experiences participating in those lives. Considering that the people
they studied wanted to protect themselves, this sort of research required them to
develop close and often very personal relationships with their subjects. In
ethnography, personal information is the data. The researcher wants to understand
the subjects behavior, history, and daily routine, as well as their feelings, attitudes,
and innermost thoughts about those activities. The data collected in this research are
precisely those aspects of Kurts, Dannys and other network members lives.
Rapport refers to a harmonious relationship between ethnographer and
informant. It means that a basic sense of trust has developed that allows for the free
flow of information (Spradley, 1979: 78). This relationship is central to the entire
data collection process and influences the content, reliability, and validity of
information gathered. While the ethnographer is also experiencing and observing
interactions and activities of the subjects first hand through participant observation
(see below), it is vital to develop trust with subjects so that these activities are
authentic and not staged for the benefit of the scientist. Spradley notes, the process
of developing rapport is not easy to describe. This is because all cultures or social
groups do not define trust in the same ways. Each culture has its own interpretation
of what trust means, as well as how it is defined and demonstrated.
It is impossible to identify universal qualities that build rapport because
harmonious relationships are culturally defined in every society. And so the
ethnographer must pay particular attention to friendly relationships in each
cultural scene to learn local, culture-bound features that build rapport.
(Spradley, 1979: 78)
Because heroin users and dealers spend most of their time hiding, misleading,
and camouflaging their activities from the outside world, attaining honest information
about what they are doing is difficult. In addition to this difficulty, rapport in street-
based fieldwork with active drug users also has to contend with other confounding
factors. Unlike traditional ethnographic research conducted in non-industrial
cultures, applied urban research conducted in the United States (which is funded by
the Federal government) must provide incentive fees or subject fees or study
participation. These fees are ethically mandated, but the influence of the subject fee
on honesty cannot be overlooked. Understanding and overcoming these influences on
rapport development are the two most significant challenges any ethnographer faces
when working with heroin users and dealers.
The Stages of Rapport Development
Based upon his own research with tramps and bums, Spradley noted that
building rapport, despite its complicated nature, tends to follow a standardized
pattern even if the particularities of how these patterns are understood may vary
based upon the culture being studied (Spradley, 1979: 83). The four stages of
rapport building he noted were apprehension, exploration, cooperation, and
During the apprehension stage of rapport development the informant is leery
of the ethnographers aims and intentions. Anxiety and suspicion are the hallmarks
of this stage. According to Spradley, the ethnographer gets beyond this stage by
listening to the subject and being non-judgmental. This phase of rapport is critical
when working with heroin users and dealers. Even a slight mistake or
miscommunication during these early relations could have major repercussions. The
challenge of this stage revolves around the researchers comfort in befriending people
who are participating in activities that hurt themselves and others and likely conflict
with the researchers personal attitudes about drug use. In my research, for example,
I understood that Kurt and Danny were selling heroin and affecting the lives of the
people they sold the drug to in detrimental ways. I did not condone their behaviors
yet at the same time I did not judge their character based upon these activities. This
balance can be very difficult for a researcher to juggle. I have known researchers who
have tried to work with active drug users and not been able to get over their own
personal conflicts regarding judgments about the users activities.
Spradley describes the second stage of rapport development as the
exploration stage. During this stage the ethnographer and informant try out their new
relationship. At this point, the informant struggles to understand what does the
researcher want? and, can the researcher be trusted? This is an important testing
phase of the relationship where both learn how to interact with the other. The
challenge in this phase can best be characterized as defining roles. How an
ethnographer handles him or herself professionally is critical here because the
informant must know that the researcher is motivated to collect information on the
subjects life and beliefs and yet at the same time the researcher is not acting like a
researcher. This internal negotiation between friendship and research is challenging
to negotiate as the ethnographer becomes more and more involved in the subjects
Cooperation is the third phase of rapport. Both parties know at this point
what to expect from the other and there is a general sense of relaxed interaction. In
this phase, .. .both (the researcher and informant) share in the definition of the
interviews; they both know the goal is to discover the culture of the informant in the
language of the informant (Spradley, 1979: 83). Of most concern in this stage is that
the informant understands that the ethnographer is trying to learn from the
informant about his or her world.
The final stage of rapport building is participation. In this stage the
participant, ...recognizes and accepts the role of teaching the ethnographer
(Spradley, 1979: 83). At this point the informant takes a more active role in data
collection activities. Understanding the culture is the goal and the informant has the
role of educator. At this stage the researcher and informant internalize their roles and
actively work toward their respective goals.
Informants begin to take a more assertive role. They bring new information
to the attention of the ethnographer and help in discovering patterns on their
culture. They may begin to analyze their culture, but always from their own
frame of reference. (Spradley, 1979: 83)
Rapport with Kurt and Dannv: Reciprocity and Circumstance
Rapport evolved in two different time frames over the course of my
relationship with Kurt and Danny. The first time frame occurred in 1996 before
either Kurt or Danny had become involved in heroin dealing. The second time frame
occurred during the Social Network research project and after Kurt and Danny had
established their business in 1997.
The most central and influential figure in this ethnography is Kurt. Kurt
made my access to and understanding of the heroin-dealing network possible. Kurt
ran all the daily operations of the network and was responsible for all dealings with
customers. He was in charge of things. To evaluate this research, the most
fundamental question is: why were Kurt, Danny, and eventually their network of
customers honest with me? In the following pages based upon interviews and
observations conducted with the dealers, I outline the entire history, structure, and
operation of a very illegal business. It was extremely risky for them to share its inner
workings with me.
To explain why I believe Kurt and Danny were honest with me, I will
address three topics: 1) my initial relationship with Kurt, 2) Urban Links, which
was the research group I worked for, 2) the social network intervention I eventually
worked on, which directed my daily research activities.
Kurt as a Research Subject: Our Initial Relationship
I met and started interviewing Kurt in May 1996, almost an entire year
before he started selling heroin full-time. At the time, after recently becoming
homeless Kurt was simply trying to survive the streets with a heroin addiction and
needed money to do it. Because of his easygoing demeanor, ability to reflect upon
his activities and those of others, and a keen capacity to describe things, Kurt was a
good subject to interview. I interviewed him on many occasions and for many
different studies conducted at Urban Links. But as a key informant, Kurt was also
very helpful to me in gaining entree to other groups of homeless users in the area. As
I participated in his daily wanderings he would introduce me to his fellow junkies.
Kurt knew everyone on the streets in the area and everyone knew him.
My interactions with Kurt, and to a lesser extent Danny, continued regularly
over several months. Kurt quickly became my primary gatekeeper into the world of
the local street-based heroin addicts of Denver. He liked having someone to talk to
and who wanted to hear his opinion and perspectives on things. (Ironically, active
heroin users are often very motivated to share their personal perspectives with
researchers because people who actually want to know what they think so rarely
confront them.) Kurt and I worked together at least a few times a week and many
times more than that for six months straight. I liked Kurt and over that time period
we became friends. He was genuinely interesting to be around and interviewing him
was easy and always very informative. During those months, Kurt was as much my
co-worker as he was my subject.
Our research relationship developed in this way for a number of reasons.
First, Kurt was unique. He was genuinely interested in helping our research project
and could be considered an indigenous activist for issues important to heroin
injectors. With the help of several community-based organizations, Kurt even spoke
publicly at conferences about health related topics affecting local drug injectors such
as needle exchange, hepatitis, and HIV prevention. He appreciated health
professionals and researchers at Urban Links wanted to know what he experienced.
Kurt had even read several publications that Steve Koester, Urban Links director,
had published. He respected the research process. He also got along very well with
Ken Anderson and Ursula Lauper, my other research colleagues at Urban Links.
This quasi-altruistic attitude was not surprising. Kurt had a history of working at
the university as a drug and alcohol counselor and liked helping people.
Kurts attitude about becoming and staying involved with the research at
Urban Links was not simply the product of his goodwill and altruism. It was also
self-serving. We paid a $10 subject fee to heroin users for interviews at Urban Links.
Part of the reason for our continued and consistent relationship early on was the
result of Kurts more pragmatic sensibility. Like other homeless heroin users in the
area, Kurt at that time had no steady source of income. He survived by making
money through a variety of different activities both legal and illegal. Besides part-
time heroin dealing that was rarely ever more than connecting dealers with buyers,
one of Kurts most frequent hustles was hooking boxes. This hustle, common for
the homeless junkies in the area, involved using a small hook to jimmy money out of
the self-pay parking boxes common to the downtown area. Kurt was good at it.
The $10 interview fee provided to Kurt through his research participation at
Urban Links gave him a source of legitimate income. This was also true for other
informants Urban Links used with regularity. Through Urban Links I gave Kurt
money he used to buy food, shelter, and, if he wanted, heroin. Without a doubt and
with no hesitation I can say, Kurt used our research and our involvement with him
as a source of income as he did with the other agencies that utilized his time and
efforts. It was clear I needed Kurt as a research subject and it was clear he needed the
money. Our research gained immeasurably from interactions with him. He provided
insight into issues and activities that other heroin users could not describe and his
insight was indispensable.
After six months of intensive interactions, my relationship with Kurt ended
rather abruptly. This was not due to anything either one of us wanted but because of
the completion of a particular research project that Urban Links was conducting. We
were phasing out our primary study and had a gap in time before starting the next.
Urban Links needed to set up the next project. Research stopped during that interim.
Continuity in maintaining relationships with research subjects within these sorts of
research projects, which are dependent upon federal grant funding, is difficult
because of just such funding and research schedule considerations. But Kurt
Urban Links and the Social Network Project
Supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the
research on heroin dealing was conducted under the auspices of a much larger
research project directed by Dr. Stephen Koester, which began in 1997
(1R01DA09232-01A2 A Study of Individual/Network HIV Intervention for
IDUs). Later I wrote and was awarded a National Research Service Award pre-
doctoral fellowship in 1999 to extend work that I was already conducting
(1F31DA06016-01 A Heroin Dealing Network: Asymmetric Power and HIV
risk). This extension was only important because it directed a portion of my
analytic efforts toward investigating heroin dealing within the parent project. Overall
however, my research efforts and aims were concordant with the larger project.
Under the direction of Stephen Koester, from 1997 to 2001, Urban Links
conducted a social-network based intervention research project targeting out-of-
treatment injection drug users (IDUs). The projects overall aim was to investigate
the efficacy of a network based intervention compared to a standardized individual
intervention. Using health educators to moderate discussion, the network
intervention recruited heroin users who were connected through their drug use.
These injection networks went through the intervention together and messages were
tailored to specific issues central to the groups injection safety. Using a
comprehensive network survey, injection behaviors were then compared between
this intervention and a standardized individual intervention.
One of the many strengths of the Network Intervention project was that it
incorporated ethnographic research into its design. While the survey research was
directed at quantifying HIV risk behaviors, understanding network relationships and
intervention efficacy was part of the aim of the ethnography. The research
investigated a range of drug injectors networks toward two primary aims: 1) how
the contextual dimensions of the network impacted the HIV risk behaviors of its
members, 2) how the intervention affected these issues. Understanding issues of
social support and influence were the primary aims of this portion of the research
effort. By investigating a range of different injection network, findings could be
To understand networks of drug injectors, ethnographic researchers on the
project had to systematically immerse themselves into selected networks. This was
not easy. Typically, and on other projects I have worked on, street-based
ethnography with out-of-treatment drug injectors did not necessarily resemble what
traditional anthropologists might consider ethnography. For example, interviews
with participants were often conducted in an office and participant observations
were usually scheduled at the convenience of the participant. On the Social Network
project the attitude was different.
Dr. Steve Koester, who conceived of and directed the Social Network
project, was an anthropologist and active in ethnographic research with active drug
users. He designed the ethnographic portion of the project with traditional fieldwork
standards. This perspective afforded me, as well as other researchers at Urban Links,
uncommon latitude in exploring drug injection networks and formulating findings
regarding the projects research aims. For example, all research activities with
networks were conducted in the field. Researchers were encouraged to become
quasi-members of their networks. Developing rapport and spending unstructured
time in these setting was understood as valuable. As a result, I was able to spend
hours at a time with Kurt and Danny. This unstructured time was the only way this
research could have been conducted. Heroin dealing, like other components of heroin
users lives, is a complicated and multifaceted activity. Having the time and being
able to see the process occur daily was critical toward describing it and
understanding what it meant to those involved.
Kurt the Dealer: Our New Relationship
My responsibilities early on the Social Network project kept me off the
streets and away from data collection activities from mid 1997 to 1998. In
retrospect, this time off was good for me because I needed a break. As other street-
based researchers have noted, it is emotionally challenging to spend every day with
and get to know quite intimately people living such unstoppably destructive
lifestyles (Agar, 1980; Bourgois, 1989; Ratner, 1993).
When I began research on the Social Network study I did not have a
particular network to study. I had lost track of many of the heroin users I had
known from the previous project and was starting from scratch. After re-connecting
with and interviewing a few homeless addicts that I knew from before, I wasnt able
to establish any productive relationships. As a side note, in working repeatedly with
the same heroin users it has been my experience that users, not researchers, typically
choose with whom they will work. Totally by chance one afternoon, while
returning from an interview, I saw Danny. We spoke briefly. He and Kurt were
living together in an apartment in Capital Hill, which is a neighborhood I had
recently moved into not far from downtown. He gave me their phone number and
told me to call. I called the next day. Kurt was excited about our reunion and in very
good sprits. That day, February 4, 1998,1 met Kurt and Danny at their new
apartment and started my research on heroin dealing.
Much had changed for Kurt and Danny in the six month hiatus of our
relationship. They were now dealing heroin full-time and their business had
blossomed. Things were very busy for them. I took my tape-recorder and carried out
my usual interview routine. I was able to spend hours sitting at Kurt and Dannys
apartment watching them sell heroin, listening to their stories, and meeting their
customers (see appendix B and C). The tone of these first few interviews was
relaxedalmost like old friends who had not seen one another for ages. Kurt was
excited about dealing heroin for two reasons. First, he was good at it. And second,
through dealing he and Danny were able to get off the streets and into an apartment.
He was clearly proud of what he had accomplished. All was going well, but
something changed on my third interview.
After interviewing Kurt and Danny I was getting ready to leave and go back
to the office. I started filling out the paperwork for Kurt and Dannys subject fees
when Kurt told me that I did not have to pay. He said it very matter-of-factly,
Dont worry about it. We dont need the money. I looked up and it was obvious
that both had talked about this in advance because Danny nonchalantly concurred. I
was shocked and a little concerned. I told both of them that I was interviewing them
and I asked if they were sure that they did not want the payment for their time. I
even made the unprofessional remark that it was not my money; it was the projects
money and it was intended for these interviews. Kurt was adamant and could not be
Subject Fees. The influence of a subject fee is of major concern on several
different levels when conducting research with active drug users. First, considering
that many drug users are poor and frequently in desperate need of quick and
relatively easy sources of cash, incentive fees are often criticized as manipulative.
By offering a fee to a heroin user for an interview, the researcher is influencing the
study population. Because many heroin users are reluctant to identify themselves,
only heroin users who will be influenced by an incentive fee will likely participate.
This is an unfortunate fact of street-based social science research with drug users
that is largely unavoidable because participation is voluntary.
Second, if a researcher pays a drug user it might be considered unethical
because the user may spend that money to buy drugs and exacerbate his or her
problem. But then, how should users be reimbursed? Heroin users, despite their
addiction to the drug, should not be treated any differently as research subjects than
ordinary non-drug using populations. To say it is unethical to give drug users
incentive fees, and yet to give fees to non-drug users who participate in research, is
unethical. No matter what, it is unethical to place conditions on the money a subject
is paid for their participation in a study. A subject is free to spend the money they
are paid for their time in a study any way they want. Urban Links purposefully
kept payments small ($10 in this case) so that if a drug user did use the money for
drugs the impact of the fee would be minimal.
Finally, if a researcher pays a drug user for information, the data collected
may be influenced because it was purchased. Trust in the source of the data would
then have to be disentangled from payment issues. One of the major confounding
factors in paying drug users for information is social desirability. Social desirability
refers to a research scenario wherein a subject gives a researcher a popular response
to please the researcher (Babbie, 1995). Drug users may provide socially desirable
answers to researchers to be considered favorably for interviews in the future. This
is especially risky in ethnographic research settings where subjects are interviewed
repeatedly and frequently. But in ethnographic research, subjects who only provide
information based on a subject fee are difficult to trust. This cycle is particularly
damaging because the veracity of the data is confounded by the fact one is paying for
the information. Thankfully, ethnographic research also relies on participant-
observation to validate findings from interviews. This aspect of ethnography, which
will be discussed elsewhere, counter-balances the risk in dependence on subject fees.
Reciprocity and Research. Initially I did not know how to respond to not
paying Kurt and Danny subject fees. Without giving them something for my daily
intrusions into their lives I felt awkward and guilty. Discussing this issue with Dr.
Koester, the director of Urban Links and my mentor, an important point was raised.
If I refused their desire not to be paid I would be violating their wishes and acting
unethically. The situation was confusing and I had to make an adjustment. But what
had occurred was important.
In this point in my relationship with Kurt, he felt that payment was out-of-
line. First, as he stated, they did not need the money. The money was not
important. More importantly however, our relationship was not longer framed in the
same terms; we were old friends and he was excited about sharing what he was now
doing with me. In addition, Kurts acceptance of me was evident in another way.
Kurt told me I had helped him out before by interviewing him when he was
homeless and needed the money. He trusted that in our past relations I had helped
him out when I could and he was now able and happy to return my generosity. Even
after I explained that he, like the other informants, had helped me out tremendously
on the project and there was no need for him to feel responsible to repay me, he
could not be convinced.
This alteration in attitude signaled an important rapport shift but also
highlighted a crucial aspect of homeless heroin users relationships. In his
relationship with me, Kurt was applying a code of conduct heroin users utilize to
form partnerships. Just as Spradley indicated, I was now being trusted through the
same avenues of trust as other heroin users. In the streets, if a heroin user helps
another heroin user out, it is expected that this generosity is repaid at some later
date. Kurt had participated in countless reciprocal relations of this sort when he was
homeless. At this stage in our relationship Kurt was now considering what I had
done for him in the same reciprocal terms. Because I had helped Kurt in the past
with subject fees I did not have to do that now. Even though I was not necessarily
doing anything with Kurt that I did not do with other heroin users, he was now in a
position to repay that assistance and he was happy to do so. I had no idea that I
was accruing this sort of interpersonal capital; yet being accepted in this manner was
a direct demonstration of the trust Kurt had in me and consolidated my rapport.
This norm of reciprocity among heroin users (particularly homeless users), which
Kurt was now applying to our relationship, was fundamental to his career as a
heroin dealer and foreshadowed a prime topic of my research with the network.
Within the framework of Spradleys stages of rapport, most of the rapport
development stages in my relationship with Kurt occurred before he began dealing.
These barriers were overcome, as with other active heroin users, as a team effort of
Urban Links staff (Stephen Koester, Ken Anderson, and Ursula Lauper). It was
Urban Links mission statement not to make judgments about heroin users. As a
group of researchers we wanted to help heroin users by first understanding their
activities from their point of view and to do that all the research staff was dedicated
to developing rapport. I was the Urban Links staff member who got along best with
Kurt and got him specifically involved.
It is critical that, in our relationship, the apprehension, exploration, and
cooperation stages of rapport development were overcome long before Kurt started
to deal. Kurt participated actively in many different aspects of multiple different
studies when he was being paid. Now that he was dealing, the subject fees were no
longer a means by which he survived; his participation was now completely
voluntary. Kurt wanted to demonstrate to me that I was part of his group and that
our friendship, which developed through heroin users reciprocal code of conduct,
was not influenced by any of the confines that the payment of subject fees imposed.
By not paying I was now Kurts friend and confidant. Payment only made things
awkward. The result of all this was; I had an open invitation to come over to Kurt
and Dannys apartment any time -1 didnt even have to call.
With unprecedented access to Kurt and Dannys heroin dealing, I began my
research with the network in February of 1998. This research continued until May
of 1999. My research design for this project was based on the ethnographic research
design of the Social Network project at Urban Links with the intention of exploring
the heroin-dealing network.
The Network Structure. Research Design, and Methods
The study of Kurts network involved two phases. In the first phase of
research the aim was to understand exchange and transactions between Kurt, Danny,
and their customers in the network. Making sense of the relationships between the
dealers and their customers was a first step. The second phase of research involved
identifying the outcomes of these interactions. This second phase was most
influenced by the aims of the larger Social Network project. Of primary concern was
identifying how heroin dealing affected HIV risk behaviors and other health
consequences of network members. Both aims were addressed using ethnographic
research methods (i.e., open-ended interviewing and participant observation; see
The Network Structure
A social network is a set of actors linked by a set of social ties (Bott, 1957).
Kurt and Dannys network, like the other network studied at Urban Links, was
considered an egocentric network. An egocentric network (also known as a personal
network) is a set of relationships that is anchored by one actor around whom the
network is formed (Barnes, 1972). For this project, Kurt was the ego, or anchor.
Depending on the research agenda, the social ties that link an ego to other
actors in a network can be defined in any number of ways. For example, a social tie
can be a behavior (e.g. to whom the ego talks on the phone). Alternatively, a social
tie can reflect a complex set of interactions (e.g. from whom the ego receives
emotional support). Inclusion criteria for a network member in this study were: any
heroin user who interacted with Kurt or Danny in the sale or acquisition of heroin.
Kurt and Dannys customers were their network. Customers were operationalized
as anyone receiving heroin from the ego.
Throughout the sixteen months of this research, in any given week there were
between 20 and 40 customers buying heroin directly from Kurt and/or Danny. Using
network terminology, they were first order network members. While these numbers
might appear small, many of these first order network members also sold heroin to
other customers. The second and third order network members only had contact
with Kurt through another customer. Interestingly, there were instances where Kurt
co-opted the customer of a first order member. These process are detailed elsewhere.
Of the network members Kurt and Danny sold heroin to, 15 customers were
core network members. Core members purchased heroin from Kurt every day or
every other day. This core membership, which included two customers who were
also heroin dealers, is the group of injectors that this study focused most upon. Core
members became the focus of this study for two reasons. First, as will be detailed in
the Limitations section, many network members were not available for me to
interview. These customers did not want to be identified and were suspicious of my
activities despite the blessings of and introductions from Kurt and Danny. Second,
because of the nature of my specific aims, my research was most focused on
observing heroin sales activity and the outcomes of those activities. The most active
portion of the network was its core membership. Focusing on these activities limited
my ability to research the networks more peripheral members.
Demographically, Kurt and Dannys dealing network was diverse. Age,
gender, and ethnicity are important variables that influence exchange between a
heroin dealer and their customers. Several important studies have noted the
differences in male and female customers and dealers, and other researchers have
investigated youth involved in drug sales (Dembo, Hughes, Jackson, &
Mieczkowski, 1993; Hagedom, 1994; Inciardi, Pottieger, & Black, 1982; Jankowski,
1991; Ratner, 1993; Williams, 1989). Unlike studies that target sample a specific
population defined by demographic variables, the intent of this research was to
describe and study a naturally occurring, economically linked group of heroin
injectors. Kurt defined this groups membership. It was important not to influence
this composition by attempting to over represent specific types of customers based
upon demographic criteria. Within the framework of the network it was not possible
within the scope of this project to investigate demographically diverse customer
While all network members injected heroin, many network members also
used other drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, methamphetimine, methadone,
bupemorphine, morphine, marijuana, and pills (e.g. codeine, dilaud, and vicadin).
The range in time using heroin varied considerably (from 2 to 30 years) among
network members. The level of heroin use also varied. Almost all the customers and
dealers in this network injected heroin daily and had addictions to the drug. Network
members daily heroin use ranged from a pill ($20) to a gram ($120).
The ethnic composition of Kurt and Dannys network was lopsided. There
were only two African American customers and only a small percentage of the
network was Hispanic. The majority of the network members were non-Hispanic
whites. The reason that the overwhelming majority of network members were white
had to do most directly with the fact that Kurt ran the daily operation of the
network. This aspect of the network, in turn, had to do with how Kurt and Dannys