Throughout human history, laws have been implemented to combat crime and associated behaviors that disrupt social peace and order. Urbanization and industrialization, as well as the new ‘information age’, are particularly blamed for an increase in criminal activities in the modern society (Brooks, 2003). Generally, crime involves a breach of various set rules or laws that can lead one be to be punished by various appointed authorities, such as the legal justice system. However, the concept of crime is quite complex, with different societies and jurisdictions defining crime and associated activities differently and instituting different kinds of punishments. This complexity is echoed by Hillyard & Tombs (2007) in their brief critical critique of criminology. The various types of crimes committed include murder, assault, arson, perjury and illegal drug trafficking, among many others.

Like other crimes, illegal drug trafficking is subject to a variety of prohibition laws in national, as well as international jurisdictions. Drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are prohibited drugs, whereby their manufacture, cultivation, distribution or sale can land one in prison. Despite enforcement of drug prohibition rules, many people, especially the youth, continue to engage in drug-dealing. This has led to much research in a social context on why people engage in drug dealing, as well assessment of the various factors and variables involved, such as gang affiliation among others. This paper evaluates drug dealing in relation to the Strain and Sub-cultural theories in criminology through assessment of a journal article by John Hagedorn titled ‘Homeboys, Dope Fiends, Legits, and New Jacks’. Basically, the writer asserts that many of the young male adults that deal in drugs are not what he describes as “committed long-term participants”, and that the current severe sanctions should be scraped.

Strain and Sub-Cultural Crime Theories

Like any other behavior, engaging in any crime is driven or caused by various factors. In criminology, the Strain and Sub-cultural theories are primarily advanced by social and criminal theory researchers who believe that people engage in crime due to a variety of factors in the social setting. These theories have largely been used to generally explain crime, juvenile delinquency and almost every crime committed by adults. The theories basically assert that a crime occurs as an adaptation, that is, a normal social response to abnormal social situations (Einstadter & Henry, 2006).

The strain theory posits that the cause of a crime can be traced to the social structure and culture prevailing in a specific society, as highlighted by research on Asian gangs in America (Tsunokai, & Kposowa, 2002). Important variables in structural and cultural organization of the society include the nature of occupational roles, as well as distribution and chances available in obtaining them, division of labor and the culturally prescribed goals in the society. Essentially, the strain theory asserts that crime results from society’s failure to sufficiently regulate behavior of individuals in achieving various culturally prescribed goals, such as monetary success through legal channels. Additionally, the theory proclaims that various types of stressors or strain, such as unemployment among others play a vital role in leading people to engage in criminal behavior (Tibbetts & Hemmen, 2009).

On the other hand, the Sub-Cultural theories strongly relate criminal behavior to an individual’s contact and relationships with groups that espouse values that encourage people to engage in criminal activities. It highlights affiliation to various societal sub groups, such as gangs, as well as exposure and adoption of values held by the group as leading individuals to engage in criminal behavior. Fundamentally, they posit that individuals engage in crime by virtue of belonging to social groups and sub-groups that approve, excuse or justify crime and criminal behavior. Like the strain theory, sub-cultural theories acknowledge that societal cultural and structural deficits eventually cause people, and especially the youth, to reject various social values and standards that define one’s worth in society and band together to form groups largely involved in crime (Mille, 2009).  

Strain and Sub-Cultural Crime Theories and Drug Dealing: An Analysis

The writer in the journal article generally avers that many young male adults involved in drug-dealing gangs are not “committed long term participants”, whereby he cites previous research done to support his conclusion. He cites that the research has shown that gang membership varies according to aspirations of members for success, which leads them to turn to innovative solutions to attain those success goals. Both the strain and sub-cultural criminology theories support these conclusions, whereby blocking of the general social goals, such as economic independence, that people in specific societies seek, leads the youths to form groups that enable achievement of those goals.

Consequently, this leads the gang members to engage in drug-dealing to achieve those goals, which act as the stressor that drives engagement in criminal behavior. Additionally, gang membership involves the adoption of the inherent values and activities in the group, whereby some individuals join the groups in several stages. Those that join later find more seasoned members who directly or indirectly inculcate in them the group’s values and direct them in adopting behavior and activities shared by all, and thus being perceived as proper in the gang. This process of induction highlights the hypothesis of the sub-cultural theories asserting that group affiliation and consequent adoption of its values play a major role in leading people to engage in criminal behavior. Primarily, this is based on the perception held by young males adults that engage in drug dealing that the conventional channels that may be utilized to achieve their goals are inaccessible. This particularly applies to the lack of paying jobs, which leads them to turn to drug dealing to aid them in achieving the goals.

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This is confirmed by the writer’s research review which shows that some gang members involved in the drug dealing business are also involved in legitimate enterprises primarily to supplement revenue from drug-dealing. The article identifies four ideal types of gang members in the illegal drug trade, including the so called “homeboys”, who work in the drug trade, as well as in conventional jobs. There are also legit, or those who grew mature selling drugs, dope fiends, drug addicts engaging in trade to sustain their addiction, as well as new jacks, or those who engage in drug trafficking as a career. The legit group was found to have changed due to a variety of factors, such as influence from their loved ones, among others. Some homeboys were also found to want to go legit, but they perceived the move as a difficult one (Hagedorn, 1994).

Primarily, the article acknowledges that gang members have tried working in legitimate jobs but ventured into the drug trade as a matter of survival. They also had conventional aspirations, especially gaining security in the American way of life. Surprisingly, they had conventional ethical beliefs about drug-dealing being immoral, but effectively justified their own engagement. Eventually, they ended up rejecting the traditional societal norms, whereby success-oriented illegitimate norms through involvement in crime replace conventionality. While engaging in drug-dealing activities, some dealers become addicted to drugs, thus forming groups of the so-called “dope fiends”, whose goal lies in sustaining the habit, even though they aspire to quit the drug trade, which becomes a major problem.

The last group, however, are seen to have little interest and care about group norms. Strong individualists are seen as being driven by the need to live up to the image of the “drug dealer” made popular due to media stereotypes. In terms of the strain theory, this category’s engagement in drug-dealing can be explained by the society’s creation of lucrative opportunities. The new jacks mainly engage in the drug trade because there are opportunities to exploit, as well as available conventional markets and customers for the lucrative drug trade. In this case, society provides various enablers and opportunities to various people who end up engaging in the drug trade as a career. In terms of sub-cultural theories, the last group can be viewed as engaging in drug-dealing due to the media, which forms an important group in every society, whereby they seek to live up to the ‘drug dealer’ stereotype.


Generally, the writer has utilized other researcher’s theories, such as the opportunity theory, to explain the fact why various groups of drug dealers engage in illegal drug trade. The theory shows that drug dealers engage in crime due to various opportunities, such as lucrative markets and customers provided by the society. However, this is not quite effective, as it does not directly address the many variables involved, such as what leads to the formation of groups that encourage involvement in criminal activities. However, the theory is in line with the strain theory which acknowledges the effects that are manifested as a result of crime and deviance caused by various deficits in a society’s structural and cultural organization. The strain and sub-cultural theories are quite effective in that they can be used to explain why many people engage in the drug-dealing trade from a social perspective. The strain and sub-cultural theories effectively link involvement in crime to the numerous variables, especially affiliation to criminal gangs and the associated acquisition of values, which eventually creates an acceptable basis for criminal behavior.

The two theories have the potential to influence public policy in addressing the various drivers that lead many people to engage in illegal drug trade. By addressing the various factors, such as unemployment and opportunities created due to the society’s tacit acceptance of illegal drugs, the theories can prove quite informative in providing effective solutions that can be incorporated in the criminal justice system. For instance, rehabilitating offenders directly and indirectly will involve building social capital through the creation of employment opportunities in addition to supportive relationships that enable achievement of set goals.

This is supported by the article which shows that drug dealers had conventional beliefs and values about involvement in crime, with their involvement being precipitated by lack of legitimate ways, such as employment, for achieving various goals. It also showed that drug dealers would like to leave the drug-dealing trade, but cite difficulty in integration back into society as being the primary hindrance. In support of strain and subculture theories, the dealer’s fear of incarceration, survival-oriented reasons for entry in the drug economy and efforts in finding steady legitimate work after years in the drug trade underscores the need for instituting ways to aid drug dealers in securing a future in legitimate businesses. 

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