In January two Madison residents suddenly became the victims of an armed burglar who they knew they could never report to police for fear of their own arrest.
The two men were large-scale drug dealers, buying pounds of marijuana at a time to sell to a network of buyers. Craig Bennett, a fellow dealer and friend of the two whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said the incident was part of the reason he chose to leave the drug trade.
“You’re kind of at [the] mercy of a whole bunch of other people who are doing stuff that’s illegal, but have zero mercy for you or anyone else who you deal to,” Bennett said. “I pretty much stopped at this point.”
Bennett, a UW-Madison undergraduate, began selling drugs when he came to Madison from a small town, without much spending money. Once he moved out of UW housing, buying and selling marijuana became nearly a full-time job as his customer pool rapidly expanded.
“I would get done with class and I would get back to my house and literally sit there all night and wait for people to come to my place to pick up,” Bennett said. “It is a job.”
Bennett did business only with individuals he trusted and around whom he felt safe, which made it even more of a shock when his friends were robbed of their cash and drugs.
According to Lt. Jason Freedman of the Dane County Narcotics Task Force, drug-related violent crime is far more common than many in the business realize.
“Any time you’re talking about high-value illegal product, it’s going to generate other crime,” Freedman said. “There are second-order and third-order consequences of these [crimes].”
UW-Madison freshman Kevin Irving, whose name has also been changed, is newer than most to the Madison drug market, selling mostly marijuana to friends and close acquaintances.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Irving said. “I [sell only to friends] because of the sketch factor. I don’t want to be dealing with people I don’t know … Eventually it’ll be friends of friends and friends of friends of friends.”
However, he says he would also like to expand.
Irving has some experience selling psychedelic mushrooms and cocaine, which according to him is increasingly popular among fraternities and at “party schools” like UW-Madison.
Selling ounces at a time, Irving’s operation is not yet large enough to earn an investigation from Freedman’s team, although that could change if the Task Force links his harder drugs to a larger drug network.
An investigation by Freedman’s team typically follows a tip to police from the community or one made by the victim of a drug crime. The Task Force then attempts to trace the drug to its source by mapping out the known network of drug traffic.
These networks can include as many as 10 links from producer to buyer and between 50 and 150 individuals. They are often well-organized revenue streams for gangs in Madison and around the Midwest, according to Freedman.
“Our goal is to work as far up the distribution chain as possible,” Freedman said.
However, while the Task Force coordinates with other local and federal agencies to take on larger networks, the very top layers of the network are usually not based in Madison.
“Locally we have that second tier, where we have individuals in Dane County that are moving kilograms of cocaine, kilograms of heroin and then hundreds of pounds of marijuana,” Freedman said.
Freedman’s Task Force seized just over $1 million worth of drugs in 2012, including nearly 140 pounds of marijuana and almost 1.5 kilograms of cocaine.
Bennett’s dealer bought the drugs from a grower in Colorado and sold to local dealers by the pound. When he dealt, Bennett was usually the third dealer to sell the drugs before it got to a buyer.
“We do not spend a lot of time on marijuana investigations,” Freedman said. “If we look into them, they’re major, they’re multiple-pound dealers … We just don’t have the time for that because of heroin and other drugs.”
Freedman said marijuana investigations also take less time than others because fractions of grams of cocaine and heroin are harder to track than pounds of marijuana.
Officers regularly offer a deal to individuals they arrest for drug offenses: If they give up the name of their seller, police will lessen the charges against them. This practice means the most valuable asset to someone in the drug trade is not the cash or the product, but trust.
“I liked it where I knew [my customers] were my friends,” said Bennett, who refused the deal when a Milwaukee-area law enforcement agency offered it to him. “It’s insurance policy that they wouldn’t rat me out.”
Irving, like most Madison dealers, operates the same way, building relationships with his buyers and sellers. For him, those relationships are enough to feel safe in what can be very profitable work.
In an average week Bennett said he could make as much as $450 in profit.
While Irving understands what he does is illegal and can be dangerous, he believes it is up to the buyer to make responsible decisions about drug use.
“I’ve seen people let drugs ruin their entire lives, and I’ve seen people that can drop acid every week and be fine,” Irving said. “I don’t know anyone who’s a drug dealer who’s out to hurt anyone.”
Freedman said if the threat of legal action is not enough to make small-scale dealers like Irving reconsider their occupation, the violence he sees befall dealers of a larger scale should be.
“There is always the possibility that you could be pistol-whipped or killed because the people that you’re playing with don’t follow the same rules you do,” Freedman said. “There are rewards to it, absolutely … but there are consequences and I would like to think it’s not worth it.”