Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

A blurry line divides addicts and dealers in heroin underworld

Users often sell drugs to support their addiction, and dealers develop habits of their own

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three-part series on the heroin and opiate epidemic that has wreaked havoc on an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood since long before the problem became a popular bipartisan campaign issue. 

PHILADELPHIA — Ricardo didn’t go to North Philadelphia from Puerto Rico to sell drugs. He went to get off them.

With droplets of dope-sick sweat spreading across his tattooed forehead, he described himself as a troubled kid growing up in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, who was in and out of trouble with the law. A friend he met in juvenile detention introduced him to heroin when he was 17. His family eventually sent him to a church-based drug treatment program in North Philadelphia to get help.

But he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t get much help. Instead he got in a fight, left the program and got high. “When you a heroin addict and you from the streets, you going to find the drugs no matter what,” he said.

Now 36, Ricardo, who along with other addicts interviewed by Al Jazeera requested to be identified by only first name, said he has an 8-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter and has HIV. He said his life is a vicious cycle: “Keep getting high, keep catching case … keep going to jail, going to jail, going to jail.”

To feed his habit, he robs and sells drugs, and he rattled off the North Philly corners where he has been able to show up, work a few hours selling drugs and then leave and get high.

Chris Willis sold dope in the streets of Camden, New Jersey, in order to support his heroin addiction.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

As the heroin and opiate epidemic claws its way through suburban and small-town America, its prominence has surged on the national political stage. Presidential candidates from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul have taken turns addressing the issue, usually calling for a compassionate public health response to addiction (getting users treatment) rather than a criminal justice approach (incarceration).

However, the softer approach typically excludes those caught up in selling or supplying drugs.  

“For dealers, they ought to be put away forever, as far as I’m concerned,” Bush told a New Hampshire forum on heroin addiction in early January. “But users — I think we have to be a second-chance country.”

But according to addicts interviewed for this story as well as journalist Sam Quinones, the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” the distinction between users and dealers is rarely so clear-cut.

“In the underworld, in the drug world, the lines are extremely blurry, if they exist at all,” he said. “So if you’re thinking you want to be someone who only helps addicts, then that means helping lots of people who sell dope too.”

In other words, drug users commonly sell drugs to support their habits, and drug dealers frequently develop habits of their own.

“I’ve sold a lot of drugs,” said Chris Willis, a recovering heroin addict who admits to selling dope on the corners of Camden, New Jersey, before getting clean in June. He said a higher-up dealer would drop off several bundles of dope for him, with 15 bags per bundle. Depending on how many bundles he sold, he could end up keeping two, three, four or more bags.

He estimated that “9 out of 10” of the dealers out there with him were getting high too.

‘So if you’re thinking you want to be someone who only helps addicts, then that means helping lots of people who sell dope too.’

Sam Quinones

author and journalist

Melissa R. said she worked as a lookout for drug dealers in exchange for heroin.
Brad Larrison for Al Jazeera America

Though she didn’t sell drugs, Melissa R., 43, said she worked as a lookout for dealers — sitting in a window keeping an eye out for police.

“In exchange, you get drugs,” she said — about 10 bags per shift, which she could shoot while she worked. She estimated that three-quarters of drug dealers she interacted with were addicts as well.

John, 30, from Deptford, a South Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, says he “sold everything under the sun … mostly pills. I used to flip — buy them wholesale for cheap and sell them for a lot more, and I would be able to make enough to do heroin. It was a lot of work.”

Using and selling drugs also went hand in hand for Louis Marsico, 38, from South Philly. “I was addicted to the lifestyle first, trying to make fast money,” he said. “When I started bad on opiate pills, I was basically just [selling] to support my habit.”

Both his parents were heroin addicts, he said, and he began selling marijuana in South Philly when he was 18 or 19. But it wasn’t until he was shot during an attempted robbery after a dice game — and prescribed Percocet as a painkiller — that his drug problems snowballed.

“I might have took some Xannies [Xanax] here or there, but once I got shot and introduced to Percocets, I basically loved them,” he said. “I liked them so much, I was taking them more than prescribed.”

The Percocet led to methadone pills, which Marsico took so he didn’t have to spend as much to get high. Outside the methadone clinics where he received treatment, he also sold prescription pills like Xanax and Klonopin that he bought wholesale by the thousand. “But that just barely paid my rent,” he said. “I never really saved nothing between all my habits.”

Quinones emphasized that every addict is a potential dealer — and not necessarily just a small-time street peddler. “I know lots of addicts dealing fairly large amounts and regularly,” he said. “Right off the bat, I can think of five right now for whom their habit led them to dealing and from dealing to major dealing. And they would never had done any of that had they not been addicts, but they’re definitely traffickers by then.”

He said that he understands the tendency for politicians to want to go after the street dealers and drug traffickers but that the complexities of the drug epidemic do not lend themselves to easy political prescriptions.

“Remember, almost every heroin or opiate addict in America today started with pills,” he said. “It’s easy to point to the guy lurking in the back alley, the guy working out of some bar selling dope … But this is a whole another story and involving people we all trust and substances too that we trust or trusted — substances with pharmaceutical marks on them, not some scuzzy thing that looks like rat feces.”

In North Philadelphia, Capt. Michael Cram of the heroin-plagued 25th District said his department made over 2,000 narcotic arrests in 2015, the majority of them users.

But he disputes that there is significant overlap between addicts and dealers.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. They might let users sell because they don’t have the money, and then they’ll take part of the stash. Say there’s 15 bags in a bundle and you sell a bundle — maybe you can keep two,” he said. “But for the most part, that’s not the way most of these drug lords operate.”

“These are big-time drug corners,” he continued. “They’re not going to let addicts run their business … You don’t put junkies out on the corner.”

But Ricardo says that as long as you know the right people and can “turn the money good” — whether or not you have a habit — you can sell drugs.

“Put it this way,” he said. “The people that got money, they don’t want to get locked up, so they use people that get high to sell the drugs.”

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