Cocaine: A Club Drug Becomes Enemy No. 1

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NYPD identification held by Ed Mamet, one of the first undercover narcotics officers to join the department's renewed push against drugs in the 1960s.

Photo by: Lizzie Ford-Madrid

NYPD identification held by Ed Mamet, one of the first undercover narcotics officers to join the department's renewed push against drugs in the 1960s.

“He says, ‘No. I wouldn’t touch cocaine, I might form a habit.’ Well, this friend of his says, ‘Well, you know, it’s the loveliest sensation in the world. It’s perfectly grand. …There isn’t anything as wonderful as the sensation that cocaine gives you.'” —President Franklin Roosevelt, comparing the mind-clouding effects of cocaine to the problem of inflation

To look at Nancy Lopez—a short woman with graying hair and glasses—you could never guess that this unassuming-looking 56-year-old was at one point a “Colombian” drug dealer herself. Though she isn’t Colombian, she took over that role in the early 1980s when her boyfriend, a real Colombian drug lord, was locked up.

“He told me I had to take over the business, and I did it,” she says. “I became a big drug dealer.”

Lopez was a wholesaler, and for the most part, it was an easy way to make a lot of money. Though some of the people she dealt with were armed, it never struck her as overly dangerous. Her boyfriend’s connection provided her with the cocaine, and she passed it on. “There were only two or three Colombian women I had to make contact with,” she says.

Lopez comes from a typical middleclass family and grew up in Rego Park, Queens. Some of her brothers knew what she was up to, but no one made a big deal about it. She stayed away from doing coke herself, and with the money that poured in, she bought expensive jewelry, clothes, a Mercedes and a BMW. She went clubbing and did whatever she wanted. “It was a very luxurious life, a lot of power, a lot of money,” she says. “It was the good life, I’ll tell you. I lived the good life.”

That is, until her connection made a deal with an undercover cop in 1985, leading to Lopez’s arrest. She eventually pleaded out, served four years in state prison and was on parole for another three. At Bedford Hills prison, Lopez says, a huge majority of the women she did time with had drug problems. “I’ve got to say, that made me feel guilty, seeing all these people locked up because of drugs,” she says.

Since getting out of prison 20 years ago, Lopez has worked with the Fortune Society, helping prisoners get jobs and housing and obtaining other services to help them re-enter society. “That’s just how it happened,” she says. “No excuses. It was my decision, just the wrong decision.”

According to the DEA website, sometime in 1975, Colombian drug dealers, who were already well established in the world’s marijuana market with their high-grade Colombian Gold, wrested control of the cocaine importation business from Cuban crime organizations operating in Florida and New York. By then, cocaine was making inroads into heroin’s dominant yet declining market position in New York City. But cocaine had not yet attained the sinister status it would in subsequent years, especially when it was used to make crack, a derivative that had a predominantly black user population.

“Pinstriped Wall Street lawyers take it from 14-karat gold spoons at elegant parties. Ghetto kids huddle in tenements and sniff it off matchbook covers,” a 1977 Newsweek article titled “The Cocaine Scene” read. “Graduates of a North Miami high school hold a reunion every December to take it at a ‘White Christmas’ bash, and a California corporate president dishes it out as a holiday bonus to his favorite secretaries. Some aficionados use nothing but silver straws from Tiffany & Co. while others sniff it through rolled up $100 bills. Cocaine—‘the Cadillac of drugs’—was once known as the plaything of jazz musicians, kinky movie stars and the dissolute rich. No longer. To the delight of some and the alarm of others, cocaine is regularly bought, used and lavishly praised by hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

In a tone that seems ironic given the war-on-drugs rhetoric that would soon dominate any public discourse on drugs, the Newsweek article continued, “Taken in moderation, cocaine probably causes no significant mental or physical damage and a number of researchers have concluded that it can be safer than liquor and cigarettes when used discriminately.” The article went on to say that cocaine has become “the recreational drug of choice for countless Americans” and that there was even “growing pressure to lessen penalties for its use—and some arguments to de-criminalize cocaine altogether.”

Those halcyon memories of cocaine use in the city usually involve stories about Studio 54 with its mix of celebrities, disco and sex, and its sign depicting the man on the moon lifting a cocaine spoon to his nose.

As late as 1978, cocaine use was on such a small scale that those tracking narcotics in New York City devoted but a single paragraph to it in the state’s Division of Substance Abuse Services 1978 report on drug use in New York over the preceding three years: “Cocaine sales have recently increased in New York City, with Jackson Heights, Queens, being the major trafficking center,” it read, adding that “the Jackson Heights area has been the scene of several angry protests by local residents and the businesses who accuse the law enforcement agencies of failing to halt the cocaine dealing in numerous bars and social clubs.” Back then, the NYPD was making fewer than 1,600 arrests for cocaine a year.

Through the early 1980s, cocaine was shipped by small planes from Colombia to the Bahamas (and later, when law enforcement caught on, from Jamaica to the Bahamas) where air-dropped cargo was fished out of the ocean and loaded onto speedboats. These boats then sped under the cover of night, with running lights off, to South Florida. These were the “Scarface” days of the Mariel boatlift and the spectacularly public turf wars of the “cocaine cowboys” in Miami. It was a time when Colombia’s biggest drug czars, the Ochoas, Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder and Jose Gonzalez Rodriguez Gacha were consolidating their forces to form what law enforcement dubbed “cartels” that some estimate came to make tens of millions of dollars a day. New York received its supply from that chain either from people driving the powder up I-95 from South Florida or putting it in a suitcase or bag and jumping on a flight from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to JFK or LaGuardia.

In the U.S., the Colombian wholesalers generally gravitated toward using other Colombians or Dominican drug dealers to distribute the contraband, perhaps because they were more comfortable with other Spanish speakers, the DEA’s Gilbride says. In addition, Dominican gangs were already active on the streets of Washington Heights near the George Washington Bridge—a conduit for drug deliveries to the city—making them attractive business partners. The cocaine would be cut then resold, cut and resold until it reached the riskier jobs of hawking the drugs on the street, which tended to fall to either young Latino or black men.

Around the time that Lopez started her life as a “Colombian” drug dealer, President Reagan was reviving the war on drugs. Soon after taking office in 1981, Reagan established the South Florida Task Force, which charged a host of federal law enforcement agencies like the DEA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Customs and the FBI, as well as the military, with putting a stop to drug trafficking.

This heavy law enforcement attention forced the Colombians to change their shipping routes from the Bahamas to Panama, then Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and finally to Mexico—shifting the main narcotics entry point into the U.S. market to the southwest border.

In the early 1980s, the Colombian drug cartels controlled nearly every aspect of cocaine supply, from the grow fields to the conversion labs to smuggling it into the country to selling it, wholesale, to middleman drug dealers in America. But things changed in Mexico, where the Colombians hooked up with Mexican drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs, already smuggling heroin and marijuana into the U.S. Over time, instead of paying these Mexican drug organizations cash to smuggle their cocaine, the Colombians gave them the option of taking a percentage of the cocaine shipment, Gilbride says. This arrangement allowed the powerful Colombian cartels to further insulate themselves from the riskier business of smuggling and distribution in the U.S. and set up the Mexican DTOs to become the predominant narcotics transporters in America, Gilbride says.

By the late 1980s, the number of annual NYPD arrests for cocaine had grown to more than 10,000. By then the cocaine fad had started to fade for white New Yorkers, who were found to make up only 19 percent of all those treated for cocaine addiction, and had become the drug of choice of blacks, who made up 61 percent of treatment admissions for the drug.

The southwest border of the U.S. remains the main entry point for cocaine coming to New York these days. The number of cocaine arrests appears to have dwindled—it was at 5,500 when the NYPD last reported detailed statistics, in 2000. The NYPD seized 11,600 pounds of coke in 2007.

The health department’s Heller says that by some estimates, cocaine use appears to have been about 20 percent higher in the early 1990s than today. But since about the mid-1990s, the estimates have remained consistent; roughly 100,000 New Yorkers use powder cocaine regularly. Among the city’s total of 71,918 drug treatment admissions in 2008, 56 percent involved cocaine as a primary, secondary or tertiary problem, the OASAS report states.

Treatment admissions records show that 40 percent of the people treated for snorting powder cocaine (as opposed to smoking crack) in 2007 were black, 35 percent Hispanic and 20 percent white. Of that, the statistics show that 30 percent had no income source. Allen, the drug counselor, says cocaine, like most drugs, offers equal opportunity when it comes to addiction. “It’s a mixed bag,” he says of the people ACI treats. “You have working people, people who don’t work, white-collar, blue-collar. Just name the job.”

The OASAS analysis reports that in recent years, “many cocaine indicators, which had been stable, are beginning to show an increase” and that “in general, the drug still accounts for major problems in New York City.” OASAS’s Street Study Unit reported in 2008 that the overwhelming majority of cocaine users snort, noting that “the old street name ‘nose candy’ is starting to reemerge,” and those who inject the drug usually do so in combination with heroin.

The Street Study Unit, a group of former addicts who gather street-level drug trend intelligence for the state, reports that these days, powder cocaine “buying and selling continues at a stable pace. … Cocaine prices can fluctuate, as sellers vary the purity of the product and offer several different size packages.” An ounce in 2007 sold for between $650 to $1,450, with the price at $80 to $160 for an eighth of an ounce, or “eight ball”; up to $80 for a gram; and $5 to $20 for a small bag, according to the report. Most people buy a quarter-gram package for $25, and more often than not, dealers wrap it up in aluminum foil, the street research showed.

The DEA estimates that the price of cocaine has almost doubled over the past two or three years. In December 2006, a kilogram was selling for between $13,000 and $26,000. By December 2007 it had gone up to between $20,000 and $28,000. And nowadays it goes for between $24,000 and as much as $40,000.

Gilbride says he thinks the price increase has a “direct relationship” to the Mexican government’s trying to crack down on drug dealers, coupled with “good investigative work on the U.S. side.” Gilbride says for the past four or five years, the DEA has focused not only on making arrests and seizures but in stopping the flow of cash back to the drug lords. Typically, the drug dealers take loads on consignment and don’t get another shipment until they pay off the last one. So if you cut off the cash, you might cut off the next drug shipment.

But Richard Curtis, an anthropology professor from John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies drug trends in the city, is skeptical. “There’s an increase in the price of cocaine here, but it’s not clear to me that it’s because of anything that [law enforcement has] done,” Curtis says. “It could be that it’s being sent to Europe instead, where they fetch higher prices for it.” The U.N.’s 2008 World Drug Report notes that “most of the global increase of cocaine use over the last decade can be attributed to rapidly rising cocaine consumption in Europe” and that North America’s share of global cocaine seizures went from 36 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2006.

The price of coke might also have been inflated by today’s more costly transportation. Instead of the huge multi-ton smuggling attempts of the past, like the more than 10,000 pounds the DEA discovered in a warehouse near the Queensboro Bridge in 1989, loads being secreted into the country today are smaller—15 to 25 kilos at a time—and there are more of them. But for every drug smuggling attempt that is detected, more than nine others get through untouched. Once in the U.S., the traffickers compartmentalize their tasks, putting someone in charge of initially storing the drugs and someone else in charge of delivering them to the middleman, who usually keeps them in a warehouse until the shipment is broken down and distributed to dealers. Another person is designated to collect the money. The cash is usually sent back hidden in the same tractor trailer that delivered the drugs. Each link in this chain knows only who his next contact is, making it very difficult for law enforcement officials to get to the “Mr. Bigs”—the guys in charge—Gilbride says.

How to get the Mr. Bigs—and even deciding whether it’s worth trying to—has been a challenge to narcotics detectives in New York City for decades.

When Ed Mamet joined the NYPD’s Narcotics Bureau in 1962, it was part of a push to increase the number of undercover drug detectives by a whopping 50 percent. “There was an increase in narcotics [use], and at the time, there were only eight undercovers for the entire city,” says Mamet, an old-school cop whose gravelly voice and tough-guy persona would make him a perfect character in one of his cousin David Mamet’s plays. “So I went in with three others to increase it to 12.”

At the time, cocaine, which was sold in capsules, was very rare and very expensive, Mamet recalls. Heroin was the most popular drug on the street and had been since after World War II—”It was all over the place,” Mamet says—followed by marijuana and LSD.

Back then there were no “buy and busts,” the favored law enforcement technique for making drug cases today, in which an undercover makes a drug buy and, within minutes, backup cops swoop in and make the arrest. Back then, Mamet says, prosecutors wanted cases that were going to stick and that resulted in the suspect’s getting substantial jail time. “The DA wanted to know that the person [you were arresting] wasn’t just a junkie looking to make a few bucks but a real dealer,” Mamet says.

“Usually we would go out with someone who was arrested, who wanted to work off a case [reduce their sentence], a low-level junkie,” says Mamet, who now serves as a police training and investigations consultant. “The standard buy procedure was he [the cooperator] would introduce us to the seller. We’d make at least two buys, sometimes three, if we really wanted him bad. And sometime later, other detectives would make the arrest, and that’s how you preserved your [undercover] identity.”

But there were inherent problems with the multiple-buy technique. A lot of times, Mamet says, the guy you made a buy from would subsequently disappear. He also says there were so many dealers turned informants that they all seemed to know one another. So when one of the informants would bring an undercover around, most of the other drugs dealers knew the new face was a cop.

NYPD policy also made it difficult to catch the big fish. “We were limited in money because the city didn’t want to spend too much,” Mamet says. “We could buy $3 bags and $5 bags and sometimes a $10 bag. But if we worked our way up to the larger cases, we had to get the feds involved.” These procedural problems were compounded in 1972, when the Knapp Commission on police corruption issued a report that excoriated the NYPD—and singled out the narcotics division for its harshest criticism: “The complicity of some policemen in narcotics dealing—a crime considered utterly heinous by a large segment of society—inevitably has a devastating effect on the public’s attitude toward the Department.”

The corruption that the Knapp Commission attributed to the NYPD’s narcotics cops included planting drugs on suspects, “padding” or adding more drugs to narcotic seizures to change a misdemeanor charge to a felony, robbing drug dealers and then selling their drugs, tipping off targeted dealers about pending cases—even kidnapping witnesses to prevent them from testifying against drug dealers.

The Knapp Commission’s recommendations included increased supervision and stricter evidence collecting and reporting procedures. It spurred a sea change in the focus of the NYPD’s narcotics investigations. The commission’s final report, issued on Dec. 27, 1972, recommended that the NYPD’s narcotics enforcement efforts “be directed away from indiscriminate drug loitering arrests and toward making good cases against high-level drug distributors.”

Five months later, Gov. Rockefeller pushed through what he boasted were the toughest drug laws in the country. But by then, the NYPD, still smarting from the harsh and very public criticism meted out by the Knapp Commission, had put out an unofficial directive to most of its cops: Don’t make drug arrests.

“What resulted was a hands-off policy by the New York City Police Department and the introduction of the ‘Mr. Big’ strategy of drug control, an approach that focused on arresting major traffickers, but allowed street-level drug markets to grow unchecked,” according to a 2002 drug study headed by Curtis of John Jay College.

Phillip Panzarella, who was working at that time in the Narcotics Division’s “weight team,” which concentrated on making bigger cases, recalls Knapp’s impact. “The politicians started with this bullshit of ‘Let’s get the big guys.’ Well, the big guys were not that easy to get. I got news for you—they weren’t standing on the corners selling dope. They were well, well insulated.” Panzarella says he couldn’t remember any official directive from NYPD brass about shying away from street-level drug arrests. But he says the Knapp Commission proceedings “absolutely” had a chilling effect when it came to patrol cops and other officers assigned to non-narcotics units making drug busts. “Nobody wanted to be accused of being a bad cop just because you were making narcotics arrests,” he says.

Statistics bear out that post-Knapp narcotics arrests went way down. In 1971, the NYPD made 36,672 drug arrests. In 1973, the year that the Rockefeller drug laws went into effect and the year after the final Knapp report came out, that number dropped to 14,704. Despite a continued supply of heroin and a mass infusion of powder cocaine into the New York drug scene, it would be another 10 years until the police again made as many as 36,000 drug arrests in a year. By then, the police faced a new drug enemy.