Lee D. Hoffer’s “Junkie Business: The Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network” is an ethnography that details the buying and dealing of the highly addictive drug, heroin, in the particularly homeless area of Denver, Colorado called “Larimer” from 1995 to the year 2000. The majority of the book focuses on the partnership of two heroin dealers, Kurt and Danny, and examines their daily lifestyles and the transitional periods they faced during their operations. On a much broader level, Hoffer wanted to characterize the heroin dealing occurring on the consumer-oriented side of the heroin dealing business, as well as understand the evolution of Kurt and Danny’s operations. Hoffer’s virtually unlimited access to Denver’s heroin operations and the friendships he formed with Kurt and Danny were unprecedented in the world of ethnographic research on illegal drug dealing. As a result, Hoffer was able to better understand the deep-rooted social aspects involved in the dealer-customer relationship.
Hoffer sets the foundation of the remainder of the book in chapter one by first discussing the “War on Drugs” in the United States and goes as far as saying, “the United States has realistically lost this war … Current drug policies are unrealistic and even counterproductive” (Hoffer 2). These conclusions are developed throughout the book, but are the direct result of his personal understandings of Kurt and Danny’s heroin operations, which escalated dramatically during a time in which the police and community as a whole were cracking down on and cleaning up the rampant heroin usage in Larimer and the homeless that populated this area. He details the extremely different backgrounds of Kurt and Danny, but emphasizes how important this is to their eventual success as heroin dealers. Further, the motivations behind the decision to sell heroin and the fundamentals of such an operation are understood by Hoffer as he develops a personal relationship with Kurt and Danny as a friend and not as a researcher. As a confidant of theirs, Hoffer is able to realize the “code of conduct common among heroin users” as one based on the principal of reciprocity. Able to appreciate the norms of the average heroin user as well as the motivations to begin dealing heroin, Hoffer identified many of the shortcomings of the “War on Drugs” and inaccuracies of the media’s portrayal of the illegal drug market as violent, chaotic, and only motivated by profits.
When the “Cleanup Era” of Larimer began in 1994, the traditional way junkies bought and sold heroin completely changed. Increased police presence and sweeping reforms made by the area’s homeless shelters resulted in the homeless population virtually disappearing overnight. However, heroin was still bought and sold in Larimer, and it was at this time that Kurt and Danny began their heroin dealing operations. Their partnership was an initial success as Danny had secured a reliable connection to cheaper heroin, and Kurt had strong ties to many of Larimer’s remaining junkies, as he was indeed one himself. They quickly acquired a good share of the market, as immigrant dealers were regularly being arrested and taken off the streets. Also, local junkies knew and trusted Kurt and were much more likely to conduct business with him.
As their operations became more successful, Kurt and Danny moved off the streets and were no longer homeless. In the beginning, most of their customers were the junkies they brokered deals with in the past, but as these customers began to represent a less significant portion of their business, Kurt cut ties with those he once considered his peers and directed attention to his bigger customers. As their status was changing, so were their motives for selling heroin. They began dealing in the first place to get free heroin. As they became more successful, Kurt and Danny now had extra money and were more concerned about maintaining their new...