The west side of Chicago has been known for decades as home to some of the nation’s largest and most vibrant drug markets, says the Chicago Reader. The steady stream of buyers, combined with a long decline in job opportunities, has made the drug trade one of the area’s largest employers. As industrial jobs have disappeared, the drug business has moved from discreet sales in hotels and homes to open-air transactions on the street. Law enforcement busts offer an indication of the scale. In 1964, Chicago police made 2,232 arrests for drug violations. In 2012, they made 35,088, including 6,824 for heroin alone, the largest category after marijuana.
More than 9,000 people were charged with felony drug offenses last year in Cook County, including 4,100 for manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance. That means well over 4,000 people in Cook County have worked at least part-time in the drug trade. Heroin sales have been a growth sector for the industry as the popularity of cocaine has waned. Court records and interviews with former street-level dealers show that the success of the drug trade is based on the basic principles of all profitable businesses. In addition, it’s been able to capitalize on a cheap and plentiful supply of labor—poor young men who are introduced to the enterprise early and who believe they have few other options.