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date: 11 June 2023

Gangs, Drug Use, and Drug Selling in the United Stateslocked

Gangs, Drug Use, and Drug Selling in the United Stateslocked

  • Bill SandersBill SandersSchool of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics, California State University, Los Angeles


Gangs and drugs are two major criminological issues that come together in the United States. On the one hand, gang members use more drugs than non-gang youth, so much so that gang membership itself is an indicator that an individual will have a significant drug use profile. Compared with non-gang youth, gang members also begin to use drugs at earlier ages, use a greater variety of drugs, use them with greater frequency, and participate in other risk behaviors (e.g., violence, unsafe sexual behaviors) while intoxicated. Alcohol and marijuana feature prominently within the drug use repertoires of gang members, and the latter is considered normalized within gang cultures. Gang members also use other “hard” drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine, crack cocaine, and heroin, despite the fact that the use of such drugs is stigmatized among them. Gang membership is also characterized by polysubstance use—the simultaneous or sequential use of a variety of drugs, as well as nonmedical prescription drug misuse. As a result, gang members are at great risk of many negative social and health consequences related to drug use.

On the other hand, gang members sell drugs. A wealth of academic data contradicts the legal and public perceptions about this relationship. First, a commonly held view is that gangs control a majority of the sales of illegal drugs within any one area. However, this clashes with research specifically on gangs, which reveals that few members within any one gang sell drugs and that few gangs are specifically focused on selling drugs. Another area where academic research conflicts with widely held perceptions is the idea that drug selling is a lucrative endeavor for gang members. While the public and law enforcement agencies may believe gang members are making significant amounts of money selling drugs, research indicates that the majority of gang members who do sell drugs do not appear to earn significantly more money than they could earn working the same number of hours at a job paying minimum wage. Such findings further argue that such amounts hardly seem worth the risk given the large numbers of gang members killed or imprisoned in relation to selling drugs.


  • Criminal Behavior
  • Juvenile Justice

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