The Forty Years War

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On July 14, 1969, President Richard Nixon sent a message to Congress on his plan to combat illegal drugs. “Within the last decade, the abuse of drugs has grown from essentially a local police problem into a serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans,” the president wrote. “A national awareness of the gravity of the situation is needed; a new urgency and concerted national policy are needed at the Federal level to begin to cope with this growing menace to the general welfare of the United States.”

Thus began the “war on drugs.”
It wasn’t the first time that presidential attention, popular concern or New York police investigators had focused on drugs. Chester Arthur discussed opium in an 1881 address, the exploitation flick “Reefer Madness” came out in 1936 and the famous NYPD “French Connection” bust went down in 1962.

But Nixon’s speech ushered in a period of high-profile, high-expense government battle against illegal drugs. It launched the era that would see waves of tough anti-drug laws, the emergence of slogans like “Just Say No,” the rise and fall of coke barons like Pablo Escobar, hype over crack babies and killer heroin, and worries du jour over exotically named narcotics from Angel Dust to Special K to crystal meth—an era of thousands of deaths from drugs and the violence they spawned, and millions of arrests of those who sold, carried or used illegal drugs.

After 40 years of so-called war, some aspects of the sale and use of drugs in New York City have changed. There’s less violence associated with the sale of crack. There are fewer AIDS cases among intravenous heroin users. Cocaine has become more expensive. Marijuana has become more potent. Yet much is the same as it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago: what drugs we use, where they come from, how they get here and which communities are most affected by both drug use and enforcement.

The summer issue of City Limits Investigates looks back on the drug war in New York City since 1969. While much about the effort remains remarkably the same, one of the most striking changes in the city over the past several years is in how and where drug dealers push their products.

Cat and mouse

Veteran narcotics detectives interviewed by City Limits described a cat-and-mouse game over the decades: Cops figured out how to make drug buys on the street, so the dealers moved into lobbies. Then undercover officers found ways to lessen their danger in following the drugs inside, so the dealers moved from the lobbies to apartments. As the NYPD pursued, the dealers set up multiple apartment and delivery schemes. These schemes are how New Yorkers get their drugs today.

Testifying at a federal trial in 2001, a 20-year-old Nelson Colon, who worked as a $700-a-week lookout and “scaler” for a Washington Heights cocaine crew, laid out how one multiple apartment scheme worked. His crew kept its drugs, a scale and plastic baggies in apartment 64 of 1580 Amsterdam Avenue. The woman who lived there got paid by Colon’s crew and two others to allow her apartment to be used as a stash house. Each crew kept its drugs in strong boxes in the same room. The deals were consummated in an apartment at 1590 Amsterdam Avenue next door. Unlike the huge drug dealing organizations of the 1980s, Colon’s crew only had six or seven others involved. At first they used walkie-talkies but later switched to a hidden two-way radio system with ear pieces.

In some cases, drug dealers have stopped letting the customer come to them. A
2002 study titled “We Deliver: The Gentrification of Drug Markets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side” found “the virtual disappearance of street sales” and the growth of more discreet delivery services. As the “old school” way of dealing drugs faded from the Lower East Side and East Village, freelance drug dealers, who also delivered their wares, filled the void and actually came to grab a majority share of the drug market, the study found.

“It’s just like Domino’s Pizza…except you don’t get it free if they’re 15 minutes late,” said Richard Curtis, the anthropology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who headed the study.

Trade winds

Drug delivery services in New York City date to the late 1970s or early 1980s when Mickey Cesar, a Navy veteran who had been caught selling marijuana in the Netherlands and deported, set up a shop in the East Village and delivered marijuana to those who called 777-CASH. Cesar wasn’t busted until he appeared on the Howard Stern radio show in November 1990 to give out the 1-800-WANT-POT number, which resulted in a police raid. He died in 1995, but the delivery model has survived.

The delivery services are different in many ways from the retail operations that preceded them. “Most do not seek, nor are they equipped, to handle a large volume of transactions,” the 2002 report found. Unlike open street sales of the past, customers are vetted very carefully. The drug rings have been downsized to a handful of workers and using only white “runners,” because blacks and Hispanics get stopped by the police more often. The employees are so tight-knit they might even have an office Christmas party, the report found. The service might restrict its product line to marijuana, partly because of the lower penalties for pot as opposed to hard drugs but also because pot offers a large, more reliable sales base.

Those who do sell harder stuff have also changed their approach. Some heroin sellers disguise their operations behind sales of bootleg CDs or DVDs. Others, instead of standing on a street corner, are “roaming” dealers, walking a set route that takes them by the same places on a regular hourly schedule. “The sellers tend to keep on the move in order to not attract attention,” the report states.
Now chasing misdemeanors

The drug war has seen victories, like a steep decline in drug-related crime and the virtual disappearance of open-air drug markets. There’s also been a stunning reduction in HIV/AIDS infection among intravenous drug users, though that’s more a public health achievement than a win for drug enforcement.

But there has been defeat and stalemate as well. Even today, heroin is available within a 10-minute walk from anywhere in the city, according to state investigators. Methadone remains the leading clinical option for addicts despite the many flaws that it has shown since its introduction in 1964. The ravages of crystal meth have stayed in the headlines in other parts of the U.S., but in New York City surveys show that inhalants like glue and aerosol—which get almost no media attention—are far more popular among the city’s youth.

Today, the city is in the midst of a stunning change in the NYPD’s drug strategy. Rather than focusing on the felony of selling hard drugs, police are arresting hundreds of thousands of people on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges—a trend that began under Mayor Giuliani and continues under Mayor Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, both hope and fear color the future of drug crime and enforcement in the city. Recent reforms to the Rockefeller drug laws have some advocates optimistic that the state has turned the corner from a law-and-order orientation to a more medically-oriented approach to drugs. But now prosecutors are warning of an increase in drug crime. And some defense lawyers and social workers say the drug courts might be ill-equipped to handle the huge spike in workload that could arrive under the latest reforms.

– Jarrett Murphy

Click here to read “Buy and Bust: New York City’s War On Drugs At 40.”

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