Television shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire don’t necessarily glorify drug dealers, but they do send the message that the occupation — if you could call it that — can be quite lucrative. For example, Breaking Bad‘s Walter White abandons his career as a meddling high school teacher to make millions selling methamphetamine. In HBO’s The Wire, millions of dollars worth of drugs trafficked through the port and streets of Baltimore, making a handful of individuals at the top of the pyramid very rich.
Is that an accurate portrayal of reality? How much money is actually flowing through international drug trade schemes, and how is that money filtering down from the top to your average street dealer?
It’s much more complicated than you would think. We all knew a drug dealer or two at some point in our lives, whether we knew it — it may have been a burnout high school friend, the guy living in a sketchy house at the end of the street, or even your own doctor or pharmacist. How much money any individual makes from the drug trade or from dealing depends on numerous factors, but it mostly comes down to simple supply and demand laws.
Basically, it depends on what you’re selling, where you’re selling it, and when.
The illegal drug trade
You have to start by looking at the overall market — that is, how big the drug trade is in terms of dollars and cents. Though it’s difficult to get an accurate measurement, for obvious reasons (drug dealers don’t typically fill out tax returns on their “profits”), recent estimates have pegged the international drug trade at $435 billion annually. That’s about 0.75% of global GDP.
That mostly involves the trafficking of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Some drugs, clearly, are harder to cultivate and transport, giving them a higher street value. Marijuana, for one, is now actually legal in some places, meaning there’s an influx of supply and that it’s easy to cultivate — so, it’s not going to net a street dealer nearly as much as it used to.
But heroin and cocaine? Those drugs are typically produced in specific parts of the world, like South America and Central Asia. Getting them to the streets of the American Midwest, then, presents an expensive challenge. But there are also alternatives, like methamphetamines and prescription pills (opioids) that are far easier to produce and get your hands on in certain areas.
Needless to say, how much money dealers are making can rely a lot on what’s being sold and where. It’s very difficult to actually say. But one thing is certain: The lower down the “food chain” you are in the sale and transport of illegal drugs, the less you’re going to make.
A drug dealer’s take
A marijuana dealer in Denver or Seattle probably isn’t making much money these days, as they no longer exist in a vacuum or black market. But pot dealers in New York City or Chicago are still probably able to make some money from it. If you’re dealing heroin in certain cities — particularly in certain areas where the opioid crisis is in full swing — the money is probably great.
There are numerous online forum posts and questions posed to drug dealers asking how much they make, which may actually be the best way to get an honest answer these days, given the anonymity. But there’s no way to be absolutely sure. Digging around a bit, you get the idea that marijuana street dealers top out at around $1,000 per week, assuming they’re good at moving product.
That goes up for those dealing with harder drugs. If you’re peddling cocaine on Wall Street? You’ll probably make a good living.
As far as academic work goes, a 2000 study by economists at the University of Chicago (including Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame) indicates that low-level drug dealers make roughly $20,000 or $30,000 per year. But that was a decade and a half ago — and the landscape has changed a lot since then.