Soldiers, Prisoners, Casualties—A Drug War's Characters

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Weapons seized in a recent DEA raid. The drug trade is less violent than it used to be, a fact attributed both to law enforcement efforts and changes within the narcotics industry itself.

Photo by: DEA

Weapons seized in a recent DEA raid. The drug trade is less violent than it used to be, a fact attributed both to law enforcement efforts and changes within the narcotics industry itself.

war [wor] n.: 1) conflict carried on by force of arms 2) a state or period of armed hostility or active military operations 3) a struggle

Long gone are the days of casually smoking a joint while walking down the streets of New York City without the slightest care of being arrested.

There are no more blatant open-air drug markets and very few nodding addicts sitting against the sides of buildings, their heads wedged between their propped-up knees, “sucking their own dicks,” as Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas used to describe the position back in the 1970s.

It's a rare occasion today that you see a single discarded crack vial, let alone the deluge of tiny tubes that regularly littered the streets of neighborhoods all over the city in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Also gone are the “corner boys” perpetually hanging out slinging rock, the drug dens known as crack houses and the desperate army of oft skeletal “chickenheads” or “scotties”—crack addicts lining up for that next hit. And it's even approaching a decade since the rave scene and the use of Ecstasy peaked.

Gone too are the days when politicians and law enforcement officials made daily vows to wipe out the scourge of illegal drugs and the industry that sold them. No longer does talk about crack babies or Colombian drug lords dominate the nightly news. In 2009, the tabloids do not chronicle every drugland slaying or undercover score.

But just because the drug trade and the law enforcement crusade against it aren't as obvious as they were in the past doesn't mean drugs and the war against them have disappeared from New York.

In fact, 40 years after President Nixon announced a 10-point anti-narcotics plan that later became known as the war on drugs and 36 years after New York State made its first earnest efforts to join that battle by passing the strictest drug laws in the country, the city's drug war, while able to claim success in some skirmishes, is about as far away from real “victory” as ever. There are about as many hard-core drug users now as during New York's “bad old days.” Drugs remain readily available in the city. And the number of drug arrests in New York last year was near an all-time high.

That doesn't mean nothing has changed. The billions spent enforcing drug laws and the resulting 2.6 million drug-related arrests by the NYPD since 1973 have caused some of the targeted “enemies” of the drug war to change tactics. Smaller organizations of family and friends have replaced the traditionally more violent “corporate-style” crews. Dealers have moved from brazen, outdoor, hand-to-hand sales to a more discreet, sophisticated indoor model that takes advantage of today's communications technology to limit detection.

Yet for all the time, energy and money spent trying to eradicate drugs in New York, the major aspects of the city's drug trade are the same as they ever were: where most drugs come from, how they get here, how addicts are treated and the skin color of the people who are disproportionately getting busted. Perhaps what has changed the most over the past four decades is that the drug war in New York increasingly targets not kingpins but small-time users—an enforcement strategy that gets almost no public attention, carries a mounting human and fiscal price tag, and offers little evidence of success.

Indeed, almost every kind of drug is still available somewhere in New York today, and in copious amounts, if you have the cash. PCP, or angel dust, is showing “signs of increased use,” according to one recent study, which also notes the “date-rape” drug Rohypnol and Ecstasy “could be easily obtained in dance clubs.” The veterinary anesthetic and human hallucinogenic ketamine, also called special K, vitamin K or cat valium, also is readily available. Pharmaceuticals like Oxycontin, Xanax, Elavil, Percocet, Dilaudid, Klonopin and Catapres are for sale on the streets. Methadone diskettes can also be had, one for $15 or two for $25, and even Tylenol with codeine can be copped for two bucks a pill.

But the favorite drugs of New Yorkers, now and dating back decades, remain heroin, powder cocaine, crack and marijuana—each of which has dominated an era of the city's drug war and produced its own generation of soldiers, enemies, prisoners and casualties.