Hustlers Anonymous

By Jeff Deeney 10/14/12

Money, women, guns—these are what make a street drug dealer's life so addictive. But a ghetto version of a 12-step group is offering these young men a future other than death or prison.

Jay-Z photo via

“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.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.