Gangs and Drugs

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Gangs and Drugs

Gangs are present in large and small cities in nearly every state, and their members come from a range of ethnic and racial groups. They stake claims to turf not only on city streets but in shopping malls, skating rinks, and school corridors. Gangs use graffiti and "tagging" to mark that turf and to send news and messages to other gangs and gang members. Young women have their own gangs, and fights between female gangs are common. In some gangs females fight alongside males. For many street gangs, drug selling has become a major means of making money. A few gangs have ties to adult organized crime groups.

Drug and Alcohol Use among Youth Gangs

As with the general population of youths, alcohol and marijuana are the two most widely used substances among gang members. Researchers have studied patterns of alcohol and drug abuse among gangs. In general, gangs use gang proceeds to buy alcohol and drugs for the group. White gang members have high rates of drinking, but black gang members drink beer only occasionally. Irish gangs rarely use illicit drugs because they reject doing business with nonwhites who control access to drugs.

A study of Chicano gang members in East Los Angeles showed that through drug use—mainly alcohol, marijuana, phencyclidine (PCP), and crack cocaine—a gang member can achieve social status and acceptance. Gang members prepared for fights with other gangs by drinking and smoking PCP-laced cigarettes. During social gatherings, the gang members used the same combinations to "kick back" and feel more relaxed among one another. Gang members understood the effects of combining alcohol and PCP and had developed ways to achieve certain moods and behaviors. There is a sanction against heroin use among Chicano gangs. Heroin involvement is seen as a betrayal of the gang and the barrio, or neighborhood. Chicano gangs share a belief that members cannot be loyal to their gang while also tied to an addiction and the culture surrounding it.

Studies of Latino gangs in San Francisco demonstrate three styles of drug involvement. The "fighting" style involves violent acts meant to prove one's loyalty to the gang and claim territory and also to obtain money and drugs. The "entrepreneurial" style involves youths who want to attain social status by means of money and the things money can buy. Members of gangs of this style are very often active in small-scale illegal sales of marijuana, pill amphetamines, and PCP. In the third style, gang activities are social and recreational, with little or no evidence of fighting or violence but high rates of drinking and marijuana use.

A study of a Puerto Rican gang in Chicago describes how alcohol and marijuana often accompany rituals of induction and expulsion of gang members. These ceremonies often are tearful and emotional, calling up feelings of ethnic solidarity. Drinking is a continuous process during these events. By contrast, Chinese gangs in New York City do not allow drinking or drug use. Violence in these gangs is mainly in attacks on other gangs for the purpose of protecting business territories and forcing victims to take part in the gang's ventures.

In Detroit, organizations of adolescent drug sellers prohibit drug use among their members but tolerate drinking. Leaders in these groups want to keep the business running smoothly and securely. If dealers on the street are high, that might hurt their selling skills. Breaking the rule on drug use results in expulsion from the gang or violent acts of punishment. The gangs permit the use of substances, mainly alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, in social situations separate from dealing.

Gangs and Drug Selling

A 1999 survey of gangs across the United States found that an estimated 46 percent of all gang members are involved in drug selling, mostly to make money for the gang. The survey also found that the percentage of gangs organized specifically to sell drugs increased to 40 percent in 1999. The number of these drug gangs differs depending on region. In the late 1990s, the numbers of drug gangs grew in rural, suburban, small, and large cities, but the biggest increases were seen in the rural and suburban areas.

The involvement of gangs in the drug trade varies by locale and ethnicity. Chicano gangs in Los Angeles do not sell cocaine but sell small quantities of other drugs. The crack and cocaine trades are dominated by African-American youths who may or may not be gang members. Crack sales began in Chicago more than five years after Los Angeles gangs began selling drugs. As in Los Angeles, both gang and non-gang youths are involved. Crack sales in New York flourished beginning in 1986, but there was little evidence of an organized street gang structure that participated in drug selling. Instead, crews of sellers provided an organizational structure for drug sales.

The growth in cocaine use in the 1980s coincided with increased gang involvement in drug selling and drug-related violence. In one of the largest studies on this subject, a researcher interviewed 1,200 youths in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Nearly one-third of the gang members interviewed reported that they were selling drugs, in contrast with fewer than 8 percent of the youths not in gangs.

As the crack epidemic ended in the early 1990s, gangs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other large cities began to sell drugs like marijuana, PCP, and ecstasy. Gang sales of heroin rose in the 1990s, particularly by Latino gangs in the western and south- western United States. Urban gangs typically do not sell methamphetamines, or "speed," despite the rise in popularity of this drug throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. The main reason for this is that crank can be made simply, with relatively easy- to-obtain ingredients. Specialized suppliers such as gangs cannot make as much of a profit on crank, compared to other illicit drugs.

Chinese gangs have remained outside the cocaine and crack trades. However, some members (but not entire gangs themselves) have been involved in transporting or guarding heroin shipments from Asia. Other Asian ethnic groups, such as the Vietnamese, have moved into parts of the drug trade in cities like Los Angeles and New York, often working for more established Chinese gangs in these regions.

Not all gang members sell drugs. There appears to be some choice as to whether a gang member becomes involved in drug sales, even within gangs where drug selling is common. Drug-selling cliques within gangs are responsible for gang drug sales. These cliques are organized around gang members who have contacts with drug whole- salers or importers. Among the Diamonds gang in Chicago, drug selling is a high-status role reserved for gang members who have succeeded at more basic tasks, such as theft. Despite public images of gang members using drug profits to buy and show off luxury items such as fancy cars and mansions, drug incomes in fact are quite modest for gang members who sell drugs. Drug incomes are shared within the gang, but most of the profits remain with the clique or gang member who brought the drugs into the gang.

On the other hand, membership in a gang may increase the profits that an individual drug seller makes. In 1999, researchers collected reports that gang members can make about $1,000 a week by selling drugs to thirty customers, compared to non-gang drug dealers who reported making $675 a week selling to eighty customers. The study suggested that the power and size of gangs made it more likely that they could obtain more expensive and larger supplies of drugs, making them better "retailers."

Drug selling has contributed to changes in the organization and meaning of gangs. Studies of several groups show that drugs have come to play a bigger role in gang life. Detroit gangs went from street- corner groups protecting territory to highly efficient drug-selling organizations. Puerto Rican youths in a Chicago gang refocused the gang to drug dealing as the primary source of income. Of 37 African- American gang members in Milwaukee, 22 went on to become involved in adult drug organizations.

Despite these developments, however, the stereotype of the gang as a violent group using and selling drugs is not necessarily an accurate image for all gangs. Movies and hip-hop music have depicted gang life as a stew of violence, drug money, police repression , and the exploitation of women. These perceptions were shaped by gang- related violence in theaters at the opening of films in the 1990s depicting gang life, such as Colors and Boyz N the Hood, as well as reports of violence at rap concerts and in local clubs specializing in house and hip-hop music. The murder and arrests of former gang members and musicians such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur also reinforced the violent picture of gang life. The media painted a picture of expanding gangs involving more and more youths.

But many gangs did not, in fact, fit the image of the sophisticated crime group, reaping great profits from drug distribution and specializing in lethal violence. Studies based on police arrest reports in 1985 found no evidence that Los Angeles gang members were arrested more often than youth not involved in gangs for crack sales, or that drug-related homicides were more likely to involve gang members than non-gang members. The U.S. Department of Justice's 1999 study of gang trends noted that nonviolent crimes such as theft and breaking and entering were more prevalent among gang members than violent crimes like homicide or assault.

Gang Psychology

Researchers believe that gangs recruit and keep members who see the gang as a way to gain a sense of family and acceptance that is lacking in their lives. Gang members often feel as if traditional authorities like family, school, church, and government have betrayed them in some way, leaving them powerless. Gang membership provides a sense of identity to youth and allows them to feel that they are part of something bigger than they are. To boost this feeling, gangs seek to expand their membership and territory whenever possible.

The reasons that people join gangs, according to a 1992 survey of gang members themselves, include identity, recognition, belonging, love, discipline, and money. One or more of these reasons may be more important than others for any particular gang. For instance, Latino gangs in Los Angeles take pride in gang membership as it identifies them as separate from other ethnic groups, such as African-American gangs. Vietnamese youth gangs in the same city, on the other hand, may value the financial benefits that come from gang participation.

Other researchers believe that the causes of gang membership can be linked to influences in the environment and media. In neighborhoods where gangs are a normal way of life, youths may feel peer pressure to join, even if they are not searching for the support or money that some members get from their gangs. In copycat gangs, particularly those outside of urban areas, local youths may create and join gangs to achieve some of the same excitement, wealth, and power that they associate with gangs on television, in movies, and in music.

Psychology also affects how gang leaders control their members and force new members to join. Leaders can serve as role models, acting like fathers or mothers or big brothers or sisters. They combine the rewards of recognition and respect with punishment for behavior that reflects poorly on the gang as a "family-style" unit. Leaders may control the colors, clothing, slang, and acceptable behaviors among gang members so that each person conforms to the group's identity. By controlling these factors, the leader creates a situation where individual expression breaks the rules of the gang. Failure to follow the rules may single people out in a way that causes other gang members to punish the individual with threats, humiliation, and in some cases violence.

Gangs may demonstrate mob psychology, in which the group acts in a way that is different from how any single person might act. Group members lose their individual identity within the group, and therefore feel less responsible for anything that the group does, such as participating in violence during a turf war that may harm non- gang members.

The Impact of Drugs on Gangs and Gang Culture

As selling drugs became an increasingly central part of gang life, making money became the main goal. Gangs used the language of the working world, such as "getting paid" and "going to work," to describe their drug-selling activities. Illegal and legal means of making money no longer seemed different. Drug selling was simply a way to get wealthy and to appear wealthy.

Young people participating in drug selling have come to use the same language and hold the same attitudes. Money lends an individual power and a sense of achievement. In poor areas in the inner cities, getting rich by selling drugs became the standard way to get ahead, much as many people aspire to be "self-made" businesspeople. Money became more important than the law or the good of the community or society.

The emphasis on money, individual gain, and quick wealth was so strong that gang members in Detroit and Chicago looked at low- level drug sellers as their own "homeboys," as "working stiffs" who could be exploited by other gang members. Street selling was no longer an "entry-level job" in which the gang member could serve the gang as a whole and prove his worth as a member.

Gangs continue to be composed of particular ethnic groups, but the goal of making a profit is replacing ethnic pride as the primary bond. African-American gangs in Detroit now seem to lack interest in maintaining a sense of neighborhood or group pride. Among the Diamonds gang in Chicago, appeals to Puerto Rican solidarity were used by older gang members to maintain order and motivation within the gang, while these older members kept the lion's share of the gang's profits from drug sales.

Gang Migration

The appearance of Crips, Bloods, Vice Lords, Black Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, and other well-known gang names in new cities across the country has created concerns that gangs are expanding and migrating from their home cities to others. But few gangs actually operate out of multiple locations. Migration seems to take place mainly along interstate highway routes connecting cities to other communities. Drugs are sold and transported along these routes. Police and other law enforcement officers agree that most appearances of gang members outside large cities in the 1990s came from gang youth moving away from city centers. A 1999 study showed that most migrant gang members were found in rural areas, followed by small cities, suburbs, and other large cities. Most often, local gangs are composed of local youths who may have adopted the names, graffiti, and other symbols of established gangs from the larger cities. For example, a Milwaukee gang adopted the name of the Vice Lords, a Chicago gang, but in fact had little contact with them.

see also Drug Traffickers; Ethnic, cultural, and Religious Issues in Drug Use and Treatment; Media Representations of Drinking, Drug Use, and Smoking.


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Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida, (1996) by Victor Martinez, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for describing a young man's debate over whether or not he should join a Mexican-American gang. For Manuel, gang life seems like an escape from his family's problems. The main challenge of his life is to find a reason to survive amid the negativity and hopelessness that surrounds him as he grows up in a city project.