Crack: A cheap and deadly cocaine is a fast-spreading menace

A cheap and deadly cocaine is a fast-spreading menace

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As local drug entrepreneurs battle it out for dominance, a hierarchy of rock cocaine is being built on violence. In lucrative rock markets like Los Angeles, most dealers' base houses are veritable fortresses, guarded by thugs armed with pistols and sawed-off shotguns. Metal bars cover the windows; steel mesh and heavy beams are used to bar the doors. With some places reaping monthly profits of more than $20,000, dealers need such heavy security to ward off not only cops but competitors.

One rock house busted in south-central Los Angeles looked perfectly innocuous on the outside: a white stucco duplex with a neatly trimmed lawn. Inside, a hallway leading to a bedroom had been walled off. Behind the barrier, a surveillance camera was trained on customers in the living room. The drug salesman, sitting in a kitchen equipped with three telephones and a box full of cash, remained unseen behind a fortified door but was able to monitor the outer room via closed-circuit TV. Buyers spoke to the seller through an intercom. Money and drugs were passed through a tiny opening in the wall.

Some base houses serve as modern-day opium dens, where addicts not only purchase crack but rent pipes, hang out and get wasted. Most of these establishments are run-down and filthy, littered with ragged furniture, trash and graffiti. Rockheads will sometimes stay for days, spending whatever cash they have, so wired from hit after hit that they have no need for food or sleep. Women who run out of money sometimes turn into "cocaine whores," selling themselves to anyone who will provide more crack.

"Eva" is a 16-year-old patient at New York City's Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center who got hooked on crack two years ago. The product of a troubled middle-class family, she was already a heavy drinker and pot smoker when she was introduced to coke by her older brother, a young dope pusher. "When you take the first toke on a crack pipe, you get on top of the world," she says.

She first started stealing from family and friends to support her habit. She soon turned to prostitution and went through two abortions before she was 16. "I didn't give a damn about protecting myself," she said. "I just wanted to get high. Fear of pregnancy didn't even cross my mind when I hit the sack with someone for drugs."

Eva's story is becoming all too familiar in cocaine-treatment centers around the nation. In the popular imagination, cocaine has long had an almost glamorous aura about it: the champagne of drugs, a high for the upwardly mobile who use rolled-up $100 bills to snort lines of expensive white powder. Crack, by comparison, is so inexpensive that it is proving to be an equal- opportunity narcotic, one that does not discriminate among its victims.

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