WASHINGTON — Researchers at the RAND Corp., knocking down some of the most glib tenets of the mythology of narcotics, reported Tuesday that the typical Washington drug peddler is already employed in a legitimate full-time job and sells drugs to supplement his or her income.
The research, based on a survey of 11,430 Washingtonians charged with street-level drug dealing and extensive interviews with 186 others on probation, contradicted the long-held assumptions that it is the impoverished unemployed who are sucked into the street trade in hopes of earning as much as a thousand dollars a day.
"Sometimes we act as if these people are demons not related to the rest of society," said Peter Reuter, the principal author of the RAND study, in a telephone interview. "But these people are not people who have abandoned society. They shouldn't do what they are doing. But it's one of the things that people do to get by."
The researchers emphasized that their study focused only on Washington, where crack cocaine represents the largest problem, and might not be applicable to other cities.
But the implications of the research, which was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, raised questions about some of the usual proposals for trying to diminish the drug traffic within American inner cities.
"It's hard to persuade yourself now that, gosh, if only they had better jobs, the problem would be solved," Reuter said.
The general conclusions of the report were endorsed quickly by the Office of National Drug Control Policy as a valuable analysis of how a drug market works. "I don't think any of this is a big surprise," said David Tell, deputy chief of staff to Director William J. Bennett, "but it is nice to see someone try to quantify it."
Tell said that the federal government had long discounted tales of enormous profits being made by street dealers. "We are pleased to see that misleading myth punctured," he said. "I don't want kids going into this business thinking they are going to become a Rockefeller."
The researchers estimated that Washington--a city of 640,000, two-thirds black--had 24,000 street drug dealers in 1987. The dealers were overwhelmingly black, male and under the age of 30, and most were drug users as well. One of every six black males born in the city of Washington in the year 1967 was charged with drug dealing at the ages of 18 through 20.
Reuter and his associates concluded that drug dealing was "indeed a very highly paid activity for a set of persons who have modest legitimate economic alternatives." But, the Reuter team went on, these were not the kind of incomes "from which Mercedes or great fortunes spring."
Nevertheless, drug dealing, according to the report, was a substantial source of income among those in one category: black males below the age of 40 in Washington. The researchers estimated that these men, as a group, earned a total of $1.2 billion in income from legitimate jobs and $300 million from drugs in 1988.
The researchers estimated that dealers who sold drugs every day (only 37% of the total) earned an average net income of $3,600 a month plus an extra supply of drugs for their own use. The median income of these dealers--the point at which half had higher incomes and half lower incomes--was $2,000 a month.
But 40% of the dealers sold drugs only several days a week for an average income of $1,200 a month, and 23% sold them only one day or less a week for $160 a month. Combining the earnings of all dealers, the RAND researchers came up with a median net income of only $721 a month--or $8,652 a year.
About three quarters of the dealers worked in legitimate jobs, mostly as skilled laborers or sales and service workers. Their median earnings from these jobs were $850 a month. These statistics, the researchers said, "suggest a population that is doing relatively well in the labor force given its educational attainments."
In fact, the researchers found that dealers earning the most from drugs also earned the most from legitimate work, causing the RAND team to speculate that "those who hustle in their criminal activities also show similar energy in their legitimate jobs."
All in all, the high employment rate prompted the researchers to characterize drug dealing as "an underground version of moonlighting for poorly educated urban males--an opportunity for a few hours of more highly paid work to supplement their primary jobs."
The RAND team calculated that each year of dealing brought a 22% chance of imprisonment, a 7% chance of severe injury and a 1.4% chance of being killed. Logically, a relatively small increase in the pay for a legitimate job that was risk-free might persuade a dealer to give up his income from extremely risky drug dealing.
But the researchers noted that some analysts believe the risk "is attractive to youths brought up in an atmosphere of despair and violence. If such is the case, then prospects are indeed bleak."
Although the RAND report does not discuss drug policies in any detail, the researchers do propose three possible ways of dealing with the complicated drug market:
--Undercut street markets with strong penalties on drug users.
--Get the message about risks to younger dealers. Reuter said that the young dealers must be told: "Sure, you will earn more money, but you will face the risks of arrests, prison, injury and homicide."
--Improve job opportunities for adolescents.