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Drug trade too lucrative to kill

A typical drug operatiwith good connections wholesale Mexican suppliers might pull $11 milliyear.  |  Sun-Times Library

A typical drug operation with good connections to wholesale Mexican suppliers might pull in $11 million a year. | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: January 11, 2014 6:22AM

Here is what we are up against.

Here is why the police cannot, for all the arrests they make, eradicate Chicago’s drug trade. Here is why the feds cannot, for all the undercover stings they carry out, do the same. Here is why a sophisticated approach to combating the drug trade in Chicago should of course include tough law enforcement — we’re all for it — but also requires so much more, beginning with rebuilding our local economy to create thousands more jobs.

Perhaps more so than most of us understand, the drug trade in Chicago, most notably on the West Side, is an extraordinarily lucrative retail business patterned after every other successful, albeit legal, business. It has its wholesalers and top executives and sales associates working on commission. It has its employee incentives and customer loyalty programs. It has a steady, recession-proof, demand for its product. And it does its best to keep the customer happy.

All of this is brought home powerfully by reporter Mick Dumke in the cover of this week’s Reader, a sister publication of the Sun-Times. The drug trade, Dumke writes, with the facts to back him up, is “one of the most resilient and successful industries in the city.”

Dumke estimates that well over 4,000 people in Cook County work at least part time in the drug trade, most of them on Chicago’s West Side. That estimate is based on the observation that more than 9,000 people last year were charged with felony drug arrests, including about 4,100 for the manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance — the usual charge for those accused of selling heroin or cocaine. In addition, another 3,800 people were charged with possession of cocaine or heroin, a portion of whom no doubt not only used but also sold the drugs.

A typical drug operation with good connections to wholesale Mexican suppliers might pull in $11 million a year. A top leader might pull in $10,000 a week. A dealer on the street might earn $240 to $270 a day selling packs or “jabs” made up of 13 small bags of heroin, each bag retailing for $10. The street dealer might return $100 from each jab to his supervisor and pocket the remaining $30 — his commission.

With that kind of money being dangled, nobody should be surprised the drug trade in Chicago has access to a cheap and plentiful workforce. It’s a living. Over the last 50 years, Dumke reports, jobs on the West Side have disappeared. Between just 2002 and 2011, a once thriving commercial area of the West Side lost 10,000 jobs.

The local drug trade, Dumke writes, has “been able to capitalize on a cheap and plentiful supply of labor — poor young men who are introduced to the enterprise early and who believe they have few other options.”

As in any smart business, Dumke reports, marketing counts. So if, for example, a drug operation sold a batch of heroin that wasn’t popular with customers, it might offer free samples of its new and better stuff, an event called a “pass out.”

To be clear: Hard luck and hard times are no excuse for selling drugs, and only a small percentage of West Side residents have anything to do with it. Two former top drug dealers who spoke to Dumke — from prison — admit that their parents and siblings managed to find “straight jobs.” As one of the dealers says, “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the jobs, but I was used to making that fast money.”

But when the drug trade is everywhere in your world — and nobody else is making money enough to pay the rent — ethical concerns tend to take a back seat. If the cops make a big bust, arresting dozens of drug workers, a corner will be up and running again in no time at all.

“And all of it,” a former West Side dealer tells Dumke, speaking of the paucity of legitimate work, “is because there’s no hiring and no jobs.”

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