On TV, drug dealers are often toothpick-chewing nihilist gangsters who do so because they want mad money and don't care who gets hurt. To see how real that is, we talked to eight current or former drug dealers to ask them if that stereotype is actually true.

Seven said money was the main factor. "For the risks I'm taking, motherfucker," one said, "you have to get paid well." 

But the cash isn’t the only reason for any of them. There are larger and far more interesting reasons people deal that were uncovered; a few that genuinely surprised us. Love, laziness, insecurity, rebellion and self-improvement — these are all reasons why people put their futures on line. To them, they're filling a role in society — like a baker or a mechanic does — and every one of them feels they've done more good than harm.

Here's what they told us:


Reason: Loved his clients and wanted them to be happy. 

He grew up in an isolated town; he liked raves and "I loved the people," he says. Because he wanted the raves to go off, he connected them with drugs — mostly MDMA. He felt these drugs were good for people. "Drugs that unite people and help them have epiphanies," Trevor says. When he sold white doves, blue doves, or speckled doves (which had mescaline in them), he knew someone was in for a good time.

Trevor felt responsible for his clients. If he saw someone doing too much, he'd cut them off. And he never touched the harmful drugs: coke, heroin or meth. "That stuff just fucks people up and ruins lives and I never wanted to hurt anyone."


Reason: To go to college.

"I could get another job, but I don't think I could go to school and get a job and have a social life," he says. Dealing gives him a job and a social life wrapped into one. He sells all manner of drugs, mostly hippie drugs like LSD microdots. The two main downsides are the paranoia and the fact that he's never sure who's just hanging around him for the drugs. "People text me for days asking how I am before they actually get around to asking for drugs, then I don't hear from them for four months," he says. "So that sucks, never really knowing who your friends are."


Reason: For her health.

Fibroid tumors grow all around her uterus and ovaries, and she found years ago that cannabis juice reduces the inflammation. But in order for it to work she needs to juice the leaves of basically one plant a day. In order to pay for an expensive grow like that, she had to grow extra plants and sell them on the black or gray market, even though she was risking arrest. She said she never profited off it; it was all just to fund growing the medicine she needed. She has since found a place in a legal weed company, and is passionate about using the plant to make people healthy.


Reason: To make a political statement.

"It was kind of giving the middle finger to the system," he says. He dealt mostly club drugs like ecstasy and coke. The government's War on Drugs made him feel better, not worse, about dealing. "You're thinking in terms of those libertarian principles, thinking, I'm gonna change the world, one deal at a time."

Also, there were girls. "But they weren't really take-home-to-mom girls," Mortie adds. "They were cracked out, too, and they were hanging around you for the wrong reasons."

After Mortie started moving up in weight, and started meeting heavies with guns everywhere, and his associates started getting locked up, he knew it was time to back off.


Reason: To finish a novel.

"I was working on a book at home all the time, like 6-8 hours a day," he says. "I didn't have time to work. But I did have time to put up some grow lights and plant some Citrix and Glass Slipper and water those girls without going too far from my desk. It earned me enough to get me through."

There was also the thrill of possibly getting caught, and the feeling of being clever when he got away with it — which he did. Most drug dealers, in fact, never get caught. Despite what you might think, several of the dealers we talked to said that the danger was a downside, but also part of the appeal.


Reason: To solve his own problems.

A.L. started because, in his leafy college town, it was legitimately difficult to get the drugs he liked.

"I was like, this is crazy, how hard could it possibly be to just, like, bring a whole bunch of weed in?" he says. "Turns out, it was a little difficult, because the people who were bringing it in had a vested interest in your not bringing any more in, and then they wanna rob you and shit like that."

He sold LSD and mushrooms and "other stuff." He, too, was telling the authorities to fuck off with every sale. "If the Man didn't want me to eat Peeps for Easter, I'm gonna be all up in some Peeps. Way things are now, Peeps are just some sugary marshmallow gloop. I could take it or leave it. But if you say I can't have Peeps, then fuck you, I'm going to sell Peeps to my whole crew."


Reason: To feel relevant.

"It made me the most important person around," he says. "If I showed up to a party, people needed me." Monty only sold weed. He started when a friend asked him if he wanted to distribute in the dorms, which he did, and he never moved up to the truly addictive and possibly harmful stuff like cocaine. The best part, he says, was that he loved to smoke weed, and he ended up with all the weed he could smoke, for free.


Reason: Because it was easy.

"I was looking for a job within skateboarding distance," he says. This was after his dad kicked him out and he got a DUI and he was sleeping with a friend. "I had no other options," he says. Someone fronted him a few ounces of weed, and a short career in marijuana slinging kicked off. After a few months, and after getting annoyed at dudes who didn't pay, he found a legit job within skateboarding distance. Experts say that getting a job doesn't necessarily mean a person has to stop dealing. One of the few surveys of drug dealers, from back in 1990, found that most street peddlers also have full time employment. But Frank decided to drop it anyway.

Our survey is, of course, skewed, because we could only talk to drug dealers who are upright and free and relatively open, not in prison or dead or in those racist biker gangs where they murder reporters with piano wire. And, of course, they might've been putting a positive spin on things for the press.

Still, from this small sample, we learned that many drug dealers' motives are surprisingly moral, cautious, reasoned and even altruistic. As Darius said, "If it wasn't all good, I wouldn't do it." 

Does the fact that these slingers' motivations were purer than most Colombian white mean they weren't committing crimes? No. Does it mean that we should build them statues and nominate them for President in 2020? No, not that either. But does it mean that real-life drug dealers' souls aren't all black and mucky? Yes. Yes it does.