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Using crack is easier and less complicated than free-basing cocaine. Since powdered coke cannot be ignited and smoked, free-basers wash a cocaine base with ether to clean out impurities. Once dried, the residue is heated with a torch and smoked. The extreme volatility of ether makes this a dangerous way to get high--as the general public learned in 1980 when Comedian Richard Pryor set himself on fire while free-basing.
By contrast, the process used to make crack is simple. Ordinary coke is mixed with baking soda and water into a solution that is then heated in a pot. This material, somewhat purer and more concentrated than regular cocaine, is dried and broken into tiny chunks that dealers sell as crack rocks. The little pellets are usually smoked in glass pipes. "Crack is a whole new ball game," says James Hall, executive director of Up Front, a Miami drug-information center. "It's an extremely compulsive drug, much more so than regular cocaine. The rush is so intense and the crash so powerful that it keeps users --even first-time users-- focused on nothing but their next hit." Police in Florida have noticed increases in burglaries and armed robberies in areas where crack is sold. Says Captain Robert Lamont of the Dade County police narcotics division: "These are the crimes that can generate enough cash for a , quick fix. Then it's off to the streets to raise more cash." But robbery is not the only price society pays for crack; the state of near psychosis that heavy cocaine use produces leads easily to violence. New York City police have attributed a recent rash of brutal crimes to young addicts virtually deranged by the new drug. According to Inspector William Molinari of the N.Y.P.D.'s narcotics division, there have been seven crack-related homicides in the city this month. In one instance, police say, Victor Aponte, a 16-year-old addict, confessed to stabbing his mother to death after she caught him smoking crack.
Some cities around the country are beginning to wage all-out assaults on the crack trade. Last week, after local and federal authorities nabbed 44 suspected dealers, New York City Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward announced the formation of a special anti-crack unit, composed of 101 veteran undercover officers. The unit is the first New York police squad ever devoted to fighting a single drug. Miami's 16-month-old street narcotics operation busted seven crack base houses, arrested 485 dopers and confiscated more than $8,000 in cash during a six-week period this spring.
But crackdowns have not slowed the spread of the drug. In Los Angeles, raids by narcotics squads helped reduce the number of "rock houses" from 1,000 in 1984 to about 400 today. The business has merely moved to the streets. Teenage salesmen with rock hidden in their pockets--or sometimes their mouths--now loiter at corners and against fences. As buyers drive by slowly in cars, a quick exchange of cash for crack can take place through an open window.
In the ghettos, the economics of crack has created a lucrative cottage industry. Organized crime has not yet taken over the trade, police believe. Instead, a small-time dealer in Los Angeles can buy an ounce of cocaine for $1,000 to $1,500. Since each ounce contains 28 grams and each gram can produce up to six rocks that he can sell for as much as $25 each, the dealer can realize a profit of around $2,700.