Hustlers Anonymous

Money, women, guns -- the life of a drug dealer offers its own form of addiction. Enter an unusual 12-step program

By Jeff Deeney

Published October 15, 2012 10:38PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The Fix.

the fix “Hustlers Anonymous is a fellowship of members whose lives have become unmanageable due to the choices they have made. The only requirement for membership is the desire for a better life and a willingness to take certain suggestions. Many of us have experienced negative consequences as a result of our hustler lifestyle: incarceration, broken families, police harassment, and near death experiences. Due to the lure of the streets we have time and again chosen the seemingly easy way out over our mothers, children and our own personal freedom. If you are tired of handing over control of your life to the system, missing your children grow up, or just ready to get out of the game, then you are ready to take certain steps. Some of these may seem hard but if you are ready to gain true respect for yourself, from your family and from your community, then you are well on your way.”

So goes the Hustlers Anonymous preamble—read, in traditional 12-step style, at the start of every meeting. Printed on unadorned white paper, blotted with fingerprints photocopied into the page, it looks a mess because it’s been passed around, copied and recopied so many times. In fact, since the group’s start early this year, copies of the original have circulated to most of the drug treatment sites in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Following the preamble are 10 steps:

“1. We admitted that our values have become distorted and that the streets is a game you cannot win.

2. We came to believe that the power to change is within us.

3. Made a decision to embrace the concept of faith.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. We were entirely ready to give up our old behaviors and attitudes.

6. We admitted to ourselves the harm we caused others.

7. Made a decision to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

8. Made a commitment to be honest in all our affairs, except when to do so would cause injury to others.

9. Continued to work the concept of faith in our daily lives.

10. Having gotten out of the game and experienced a productive life we pass on what we have learned.”

The origins of Hustlers Anonymous are murky, but its use spread quickly across Philadelphia this year because it helps solve an increasingly common problem facing urban drug-treatment sites: What to do with drug dealers stipulated into the substance-abuse treatment system by the courts? As probation offices and diversion programs use the drug treatment system more heavily as a way to keep nonviolent offenders with drug arrests out of prison, counselors find themselves saddled with a growing number of clients who refuse to identify as addicts and insist on qualifying themselves as hustlers.

The reach of courts into the clinical realm of drug treatment is a long, hotly debated trend with armies of friends and foes. President Barack Obama strongly backs these initiatives, claiming that they improve public health while monitoring public safety. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Criminal Justice site details the broad array of pretrial and post-conviction drug treatment–related interventions it supports. On the opposing side, there’s a chorus of voices arguing, for example, that there’s little evidence for the efficacy of such interventions and that courts shouldn’t intervene in issues of public health. Some critics say that such tinkering with the justice system is another way to not admit defeat in the War on Drugs.

Regardless of its benefits or harms, the justice system’s change in focus from incarceration to treatment has inarguably—and drastically—altered the landscape of substance abuse treatment, as users who don’t fit a typical addict profile wind up in outpatient groups. In urban settings like Philadelphia, this new type of treatment consumer is a self-described “hustler.” He’s young and typically black or Latino, was caught selling drugs like heroin and crack, and reports using heavy daily amounts of marijuana and frequently other popular hustler drugs like Xanax (an anti-anxiety prescription drug), wet (the anesthetic PCP) or codeine cough syrup.

Hustling is his best opportunity to make a decent living, the sole job available that he finds appealing, and an essential part of his personal identity.

According to treatment sites, hustlers meet the clinical definition of a substance abuser necessary to fit the criteria for placement in an outpatient group—low level, inexpensive care. And some hustlers do self-report consuming mind-boggling amounts of less harmful drugs like marijuana while working the corner: 20 or 30 blunts a day is not uncommon. But hustlers unequivocally do not see themselves as drug addicts; in fact, they find the “drug addict” description insulting. On the streets there is a social hierarchy, and those who run the corners are locally viewed as on top, those coming to the corner to cop drugs as on bottom. Hustlers resent even being near someone they used to serve.

This new mix of weed-smoking, pill-popping, crack-selling hustlers sent to groups mingling with hardcore addicts who came voluntarily off the streets has created other complications which in retrospect seem obvious and unavoidable.

“I ain’t real proud of this,” admits Fredo, a 24-year-old Latino from the Badlands barrio in North Philly who has since left the game. “I stood right outside the [drug treatment] place and served everyone in my group. I knew that wasn’t right—honestly, I regret that. Those people were trying to get help. But what was I supposed to do to eat?”

Fredo says that he was placed in drug treatment by the courts because he tested positive for Percocet and Xanax after being arrested for selling heroin. Taking pills was moderately problematic for him, he says, and impacted his hustling judgment in a way that led to his getting arrested (“I got sloppy”). But he doesn’t identify as an addict and had no difficulty abstaining from drugs in order to complete probation. But abstaining from selling drugs was another matter.

“My probation officer had me on house arrest so I was off the corner, out of the game,” Fredo says. “I was looking for work but I couldn’t find anything. How was I supposed to support my kids? So I worked where I could to make a little bread, which was on break outside [the treatment facility] during group.”

Treatment sites of course know about their potentially toxic new mix of sellers and users, and some have tried to use it as an opportunity to innovate. They are most often creating separate tracts of curriculum for court-stipulated participants, where the focus is less about drug addiction and more about the hustling lifestyle. While no hustler will admit to being a drug addict, nearly all will admit to being “addicted” to the lifestyle. Once the program is overhauled to become truly relevant to them, hustlers suddenly become very active in the treatment process.

The guns, the money, the girls—these are the bright, shining things hustlers chase and consume, just as hungrily as any dope fiend looking for a bag on the street. Hip hop artists from Tupac and Paul Wall to Jay-Z have long rapped about their “addictions” to the hustle. “I need the green like the fiends need yay [cocaine],” rhymes HOVA (aka Jay-Z) on his 2001 track, “Addicted to the Game.”

The negative consequences of hustling are as great as any other addiction. Murder rates largely associated with hustling in Philly are through the roof. The city is cracking down hard on guns, handing out knee-buckling, epic prison sentences for those caught carrying them. The lack of jobs in a bad economy has hit poor minorities harder than anyone else, making the lure of fast money nearly impossible to resist—despite the probability of death or prison before the age of 30. Falling back into hustling is like any other relapse. (One difference between hustling and most other addictions is that not a few guys enter life on the corner in early adolescence for their single mothers who desperately need a wage earner to help support the other kids. In this context, hustling is "doing the right thing.")

“I’m just trying to meet these kids where they’re at,” says one drug counselor who requested anonymity because many addiction professionals reject the validity of Hustlers Anonymous. “I could force addiction treatment on them but then I’ve got behavior problems to deal with in group. They’ll be talking on their phones or sleeping. If these guys get frustrated, I might have to break up a fight.” Rather than just going through the motions by sticking with the drug-addiction program, innovative treatment sites are asking these young men what they genuinely need to work on—and then developing a meaningful format. “We have amazing groups now where guys are talking about trauma, grief and loss, being better fathers,” he says. “This is real therapy.”

Critics, however, have been pounding the table over criminal justice referrals of pot smokers to drug treatment for years. In 2005, Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project told the Drug War Chronicle website, "The government arrests these people, forces them into treatment, and then uses those numbers as 'proof' of how dangerously addictive marijuana is. That is a truly Orwellian formulation." Dr. Toorjo Ghose, a harm reduction advocate and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, says, “Hustlers Anonymous sounds better than the previous model of compelling hustlers to identify as addicts but this is still a different form of incarceration, just with treatment added on. I’m glad it’s there for those who want it, but ultimately I think involuntary treatment is doomed to fail. We need to remove incarceration from the picture entirely.”

But the justice system has plodded along, stipulating hustlers to drug treatment and selling it politically as a humane alternative to incarceration. Critics say this has warped the addiction treatment system, denying resources to injection drug users who want them because their spot in a program is taken by a court-ordered hustler who doesn’t.

Andre, a 25-year-old crack dealer from the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, is a case in point. He was stipulated to drug treatment by the court as part of a plea deal that disposed of multiple charges he caught for selling drugs. Like other hustlers in drug treatment, Andre took the deal because it was better than the alternative—doing hard time. Most hustlers don’t regret taking the deal to stay out of jail, and many continue hustling while they walk off probation sentences. They see the court-ordered treatment as just another part of the game, a time waster to be tolerated.

Andre would like to attend the Hustlers Anonymous groups that friends who are also in the system were sent to by their probation officers. But he’s stuck at a drug treatment center—and he’s starting to feel like the deal he cut is more frustration than it’s worth. “Look, man, I sold crack, but I don’t smoke crack,” he says. “This drug treatment shit be drawlin’, for real. I ain’t really feelin’ none of this, because I just smoke weed. I love smokin’ weed, I think weed should be legal, but they tell me I can’t be saying that in my group because that’s glorifying. I ain’t gonna sit there and lie.”

Of Hustlers Anonymous he says, "If I gotta do this shit, at least make it about something that I can connect with. Because I do struggle to stay away from the streets.”

“We have amazing groups where guys are talking about trauma, grief and loss, being better fathers—this is real therapy.”

Andre says that he’s only ever held one legitimate job, doing manual labor for a couple months after he dropped out of high school. So hustling is the only life he’s ever really known, and resisting its allure is a daily struggle. Hustling is his “profession,” so to speak, and his best opportunity to make a decent living. Hustling is the sole job available that he finds appealing and exciting. In fact, it is an essential part of his personal identity.

But with a couple adult drug cases under his belt, he knows that soon there will be no more plea deals, and his only option after getting booked will be a serious bid in prison.

You might assume that the 12 Steps, with their commands to, say, admit powerlessness, would alienate these young men who brave big risks and were educated on the street. But this is not the case. (The Hustlers Anonymous version is lighter on the “powerlessness” theme than the traditional 12 steps, however.) Nor do the faith-based elements bother hustlers like Andre, who says he regularly attends prayers at a mosque and was, during the interview, dressed in a taqiyah cap and shalwar kameez.

Many of Philly’s hustlers choose Islam as the foundation of a new personal identity to supplant hustling when they leave the life; like Andre, many early in this transition are young adults stuck in a middle area between the two worlds of peaceably observant Muslim and enterprising drug trafficker. As a whole, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods are deeply religious; not surprisingly, a majority of people in drug treatment in these neighborhoods note a faith affiliation and express a desire to reconnect with the churches and mosques that also supply support and social networking. Culturally, the Hustlers Anonymous format is an appropriate fit.

The emergence of Hustlers Anonymous is a controversial development—and its success, and its ability to help these young men succeed, will require support from the recovery community. Whether this critical support will be forthcoming remains to be seen. There may be many members of 12-step groups who reject the notion that hustling is an addiction; some may not cotton to admitting hustlers—gun-toting, drug-dealing criminals—into their club. At the same time, the emergence of yet another AA off-shoot won’t make 12-step critics happy, irrespective of cultural propriety. Additionally, its use with court-stipulated drug offenders won’t make converts of those who dismiss “involuntary” treatment as yet another workaround for maintaining the drug war.

But a growing number of counselors who work inside the system—and who are grappling with the gritty and grim realities facing their clients on the streets, as well as the law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who have legal authority over them—are becoming advocates for hustler-focused treatment that meaningfully engages this deeply alienated population. Hustlers Anonymous groups are offering not only that treatment to some of the hardest-to-please consumers, but also the hope that comes with recovery.

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Jeff Deeney

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