What to Know About Drug Dealers

Two people dealing drugs in alley
Marie-Reine Mattera/Photononstop/Getty Images

A drug dealer is an individual who sells drugs, of any type or quantity, illegally. They can be small-time dealers who sell small quantities to offset the costs of their own drug use, or they can be highly organized groups and businesspeople within high-organized operations that run like a serious business. 

Traditionally, drug dealers are seen as a key part of the problem of addiction in our communities. There is often a lot of overlap with "pushing" controlled drugs such as marijuana, heroin, meth, and cocaine.

Although some drug dealers can be classified as drug pushers, in reality, there is a lot of variability among drug dealers, the types of drugs they sell, the reasons they sell, and whom they sell drugs to.

For example, there is currently an underground market for prescription pain medication for people who have chronic pain and use painkillers to treat their symptoms. When their pain medication use escalates, they are often labeled as "drug-seeking," and their physician or insurance company may cut off their supply to the medications they need to control their pain, so they may turn to a drug dealer to purchase these drugs.

What a Drug Dealer Looks Like

The stereotype of a drug dealer is often someone who is uneducated, cruel, and perhaps heavily tattooed or has a well-known criminal record. But drug dealers like that are often an anomaly; instead, drug dealers live and work right alongside law-abiding people. 

They may have a regular day job, a stable home, and a loving family. Some don't even do drugs themselves and solely are in the business for the significant profits they can make.

Drug dealers are often seen as predatory and immoral. Despite this, research suggests that people who use drugs tend to have positive perceptions of the people who sell to them.

Myth vs Reality

In television and in the movies, drug dealers are usually very obvious, wearing garish clothes and being very open about what they are and what they do. But in reality, many drug dealers are much more discreet and blend in very well.

Online drug sales have become an increasingly prevalent way to obtain illegal substances. Reports suggest that teens and adults now often purchase illicit substances on social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat. Illegitimate online pharmacies are another common source of these drug sales.

Such practices present a number of dangers, such as purchasing drugs that are cut with dangerous drugs such as Fentanyl or buying pills that contain other potentially deadly substances.

Online and social media drug deals often remove some of the hazards of face-to-face contact with drug dealers, but it also presents other dangers, including never knowing what is actually in these pills. The Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about the sharp increase in counterfeit prescription pills being sold online, many of which may contain methamphetamine or fentanyl.

The ease of online sales may make it much easier for people to become drug dealers, particularly because they are often able to remain anonymous and avoid any face-to-face interaction with their customers.

Who Are Drug Dealers' Customers?

Customers come from every walk of life, from lower to upper class, and every race and gender. Many market to students in high school or college while others cater to professionals. There is a cottage drug dealing industry of prescription drugs, such as sedatives or medications for ADD, to help young professionals in high-pressure jobs cope with their roles. 

Regardless if a person is selling small quantities of leftover painkillers or large batches of illegal substances, that person is a drug dealer and is violating the law. Doing any transactions with that person can have serious legal ramifications, including arrest and jail time. 

Drug dealers are also likely to rip off their customers by overcharging them or by providing them with less than the purchased amount. One report found that drug dealers were most likely to defraud:

First-time or irregular customers

  • Strangers
  • People who don't have enough money on hand to purchase drugs
  • People who are not aware of current market rates
  • People they find offensive 
  • People who are less likely to retaliate
  • People who are addicted to drugs

Where drug dealers operate can also influence who their customers are. For example, young people who use social media frequently may be at an increased risk of coming into contact with illicit online drug sales.

According to one report, 24% of young people reported that they had seen ads for illegal drugs on social media sites including Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook.

Drugs that were commonly reported included cannabis, cocaine, MDMA, Xanax, and Lean. The report also suggested that seeing these drugs advertised for sale played a role in normalizing drug use among the young people who were surveyed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do people sell drugs?

    People sell drugs for a wide variety of reasons. For some, profit is the primary motive. For others, selling drugs is a means of survival. While not all drug dealers use substances, there is still a significant overlap. An estimated 43% of people who sell drugs meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. Selling drugs may serve as a way to pay for substances for their own use.

  • How do I report a drug dealer anonymously?

    You can report drug activity anonymously by contacting Crime Stoppers (1-800-222-TIPS), a national program that collects and reports anonymous crime reports. You can also submit tips online via the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) website and leave off your contact information. If you witness something that poses an immediate risk, you should contact your local police department.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dassieu L, Kabore J, Choiniere M, Arruda N, Roy E. Chronic pain management among people who use drugs: A health policy challenge in the context of the opioid crisis. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2019;71:150-156. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.03.023

  2. Kolla G, Strike C. Practices of care among people who buy, use, and sell drugs in community settings. Harm Reduct J. 2020;17(1):27. doi:10.1186/s12954-020-00372-5

  3. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA issues public safety alert for sharp increase in fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and meth.

  4. McCulloch L, Furlong S. DM for details: Selling drugs in the age of social media. Volteface.

  5. Jacques S, Allen A, Wright R. Drug dealers’ rational choices on which customers to rip-off. Scott Jacques.

  6. Drugpolicy.org. Rethinking the "drug dealer."

Additional Reading
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Organized Drug Crimes". 2015. 

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.