An important out-of-town newspaper has written an article about Philadelphia, and it’s not the New York Times! On Tuesday, the Washington Post ran an article on the Main Line preppie drug bust, complete with mugshots of the young suspects.
The story, “Philly preppies accused in ‘Main Line take over’ drug operation aimed at cornering supply to fancy schools,” is a solid story for the paper. Many of the Post’s readers must be familiar with the Philadelphia Main Line, and drug busts involving $35,000-a-year prep schools like the Haverford School allow the paper to print the doe-eyed mugshots in the paper. Schadenfreude for those who hate the rich; horror for upper-class readers. It’s sure to be a hit.
Anyway, the paper compared the teens to Mark Zuckerberg:
They called the operation the “Main Line take over project.” In terms of intricacy and ambition, it appears more suited for the business pages than the crime blotter. [...] On Facebook, he and the accused sub-dealers’ play lacrosse, pose for family photos, hug cats, fence and wear lots of button-downs. In all, they look like everyday, if wealthy, teens and 20-somethings — perhaps characters out of “The Social Network,” the movie about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s birth.
But plenty of alleged "sophisticated" drug operations make the news. As people noted on Twitter, there was even a show set in nearby Baltimore about it! (That's right: The 2000 miniseries The Corner, directed by Charles S. Dutton.)
Foreign affairs reporter Terrence McCoy's article is fine. But it's framed differently than most stories about drug busts. (A search of recent Washington Post archives for "drug bust" brought up a few straightforward drug busts as well as a heroin trend story accompanied by a SWAT raid video.) The article doesn't make excuses for the alleged dealers, but it — unintentionally, I think — invites us to think of them as entrepreneurs. It invites us to think of this as a unique situation — when in reality rich kids have been selling drugs to other rich kids since capitalism was invented. Large numbers of people use drugs among all income levels, and we shouldn't act shocked when rich people decide to sell them. Every drug dealer I've ever met has had normal social media pages.
It's not like these accused dealers are particularly sympathetic. They didn't need the money; they had other options. Moral panics over drugs are counter productive and marijuana is legal in Colorado — but these preppies allegedly sold to high schoolers. And in text messages released by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office, one of the masterminds allegedly told a school dealer, "you have a thousand dollar bounty on your head." The Daily News article on the bust, by Stephanie Farr and William Bender, takes a better tone — one consistent with the drug bust stories you usually see in the DN. It's not surprised by drugs on the Main Line.
Articles that (however unintentionally) paint upper-class drug use and sales as rare reinforce the idea that drugs are only a poor people's problem. The story is notable because we don't often see busts like this involving rich prep school kids. There is a race and class disparity in the drug war, and articles about the Main Line preppie drug bust ought to at least note it.
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