Cover Story: Cocaine Town

One in three men arrested in Atlanta has cocaine in his system. And that's an improvement.

Lieutenant Michael O'Connor acknowledges that when he joined the Atlanta Police Department, he didn't know quite what he was walking into. "I was in Panama City at the time, couldn't find a job in Florida, and Atlanta was hiring for the Olympics," he recalls. "I didn't put any thought into the crime rate — I just wanted to be a cop and they were hiring."

It was 1996. Most of the city's public housing communities were still operational, the murder rate was 79 percent higher than last year's, and crack was king. O'Connor recalls people standing on street corners, wantonly holding what they called "bombs," or large amounts of crack rocks, in their pockets, jut waiting for the next customer to stroll by. When asked about the current cocaine problem in Atlanta, O'Connor — who was recently promoted to commander of the narcotics unit — reflexively compares it to the drug's heyday. "Well, when I joined, it was a huge problem," O'Connor says. "All crime seems to be tied to this open-air drug trade. That's not the case anymore."

"Not to say we don't have a drug problem," he continues, "but not near the problem we had when I first joined the force."

O'Connor's take is completely understandable given the city's history and his 15-plus years of experience. But the extent of Atlanta's drug problem is still alarming.

But every year, data collectors with the Office of National Drug Control Policy spend a couple weeks in detention facilities in 10 U.S. cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Ore., Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. — drug testing and surveying inmates as they're booked. It's called the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (known as ADAM II), and it's intended to "provide policymakers with critical data" about a group of potential drug users the ONDCP says are underrepresented in other studies: men at their point of entry into the criminal justice system. The supposition is that many who commit crimes do so while under the influence of drugs, or, conversely, that lots of the people who abuse drugs wind up committing crimes.

Not surprisingly, it's a pretty astute assumption.

According to ADAM's 2010 report PDF, released just a few months ago, 66 percent of the men booked into Atlanta's jails during the study period had drugs in their systems. That percentage was higher in several other cities; for instance, in Chicago, where more than 80 percent of arrestees were found to have drugs in their systems. (Atlanta was also beat out by Charlotte, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, and Sacramento.) But the ATL stands out in terms of the use and abuse of a particular drug: cocaine. More than 33 percent of Atlanta's male arrestees — more than in any other city — were under the influence of cocaine when they were booked. In the majority of those cases, the inmates reported they'd smoked crack.

Generally, the consensus among local and national law enforcement agencies is that Atlanta's coke-crack problem pales in comparison to what it was in the '80s and '90s, as O'Connor noted. As recently as 2000, ADAM's research showed that nearly half of all Atlanta's arrestees had cocaine in their systems. Technically, then, one-in-three is an improvement. Still, O'Connor calls Atlanta one of "the last of the cocaine holdouts in the urban Southeast." And when drugs are so irrevocably linked to crime — and police link cocaine use and sales, in particular, to violent and property crime — law enforcement has a stake in figuring out why a third of the people arrested here have it coursing through their veins (and through their bladders, as it were). Compared to other cities, why does Atlanta continue to be Cocaine Town, U.S.A.?

The ADAM study certainly has its limitations. For instance, arrestees in Los Angeles weren't included in the research, nor arrestees in any cities in Texas. Still, it paints a picture of a city with a unique drug problem, one that began when Atlanta became a full-fledged trafficking hub.


Crime and drug use down, not out

In 2012, it's required by the doctrine of giving-credit-where-it's-due that any discussion about crime or other illicit activities be prefaced by the acknowledgement that, yes, crime is down. That's pretty much the case nationwide. Preliminary crime stats released by the Atlanta Police Department indicate that, citywide, overall crime decreased 1 percent in 2011 from the previous year, even though there were more rapes — a lot more, in fact — as well as more robberies, larcenies, and auto thefts.

So, all in all, it would appear fewer people are committing crimes. What the ADAM report does, though, is offer insight into the people who are still offending.

Per the study's methodology, ADAM researchers spent two weeks in Atlanta in 2010 — one week in the Atlanta City jail, the other in the Fulton County jail — performing urinalyses and asking questions of inmates who were booked no more than 48 hours earlier. Besides substance abuse data, researchers compiled sociological and economic stats about each inmate: a racial breakdown, his employment status, current living arrangement, and age. Apart from Washington, D.C., where 88.1 percent of the inmates booked during the study period were African-American versus 7 percent white, Atlanta had the starkest racial disparity among arrestees, with 82.7 percent of the inmates booked being of African-American descent, 12.8 percent white, and 7 percent Hispanic. Other interesting figures in the report include that upward of 35 percent of inmates reported having no education, nearly half — 49.6 percent — were actually gainfully employed, and their mean age is perhaps older than you'd imagine at 35.

And as far as the drug data's concerned, all the news wasn't necessarily bad news.

As of 2009, Atlanta was the only city where cocaine was the drug most often found in inmates' systems. In 2010, marijuana actually replaced cocaine as the drug-of-choice among arrestees, allowing Atlanta to join the rest of the study cities in that respect. And it wasn't because marijuana use increased in Atlanta, but because cocaine use decreased (it's steadily decreased since 2007, as it has most places). Still, Atlanta managed to hold strong as the cocaine capital among ADAM sites, proving it's still the drug of choice for those committing (or at least being arrested for committing) crimes.

Traffic center for cocaine

Last week, one of Big Boi's Twitter followers wanted to know, "Why they gotta make niggas be drug bosses in movies like ATL?" The OutKast frontman's response: "Cause niggas in Atlanta sell Dope nigga." Not, perhaps, the most eloquent way to elucidate of the city's less-than-illustrious position as a thriving center for the sale and purchase of drugs.

But the story of cocaine in Atlanta begins well before an inmate is booked into jail. It begins well before said inmate purchases it in crack form on the street, stuffs it into a little glass tube, and then carjacks you. It begins even before the guy he bought it from bought it from someone else, mixed it with baking soda, and cooked it up on the stove.

John Horn, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, explains: "There's sort of a local side to the picture, and sort of a wholesale or a more national component to the Atlanta drug trade." His office doesn't deal much with street-level sales or consumption, rather large, multistate drug trafficking operations. "The drugs on the street are coming from the same people, but three or four levels below," Horn says. "What we focus on is the high-level — and it's almost 99 percent Mexican cocaine."

Here's a condensed version of how, in recent years, Atlanta became a "hub" for the distribution of Mexican cocaine: In the '80s and '90s, most of the cocaine coming into the U.S. was coming through Miami from Colombia. The Mexican drug lords wanted in on the action, so they offered to become middlemen. The Colombians were like, "Well, yeah, obviously." Anyway, that's when it started coming through Texas on tractor-trailers, and the big Mexican cartels — the Gulf Coast Cartel and, later, the Sinaloa Cartel — formed. Around the mid-2000s, Mexican middlemen began to set up stash houses in and around Atlanta — in Gwinnett County, in particular — where cocaine is brought by truck, unloaded, packaged, and then moved to other cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit. Then the cash proceeds from the drug sales come back to Atlanta to be packaged before they're sent back down to Texas.

Even though the vast majority of the cocaine that comes to Atlanta will someday be shipped elsewhere, Horn points out that "some of the stuff trickles down to street-level distributors."

In its 2010 annual report, the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking program, a regional law enforcement effort to dismantle high-level trafficking organizations, says that on the retail end, street gangs continued to contribute to significant cocaine and marijuana sales, particularly in Southeast Atlanta. But, even since that report was released, street gangs like 30 Deep — like the much larger, much more organized, and much more criminally prolific Black Mafia Family before them — have largely been arrested into oblivion. The first three months of 2011 were calamitous for 30 Deep, a gang that was actually known less for its drug activity than the burglaries and murders its members committed, including the 2009 shooting of Standard bartender John Henderson. In March, purported member Jonathan Redding received a life sentence plus 70 years for the Standard shooting. That same month, U.S. Marshals executed Operation Zero Deep, serving warrants to around 40 people suspected to be connected to the gang. And a month earlier, Redding's cousin — and 30 Deep ringleader — George "Keon" Redding received two life sentences in prison.

Another factor that's changed the nature of crack and cocaine sales in recent years is the almost wholesale demolition of Atlanta's housing projects, which basically operated as open-air flea markets for drug dealers, minus the tarps and tables. Lt. O'Connor says that in the post-public-housing era, drug sales have become hyper-localized and open-air sales have declined. "The drug market moved inside," O'Connor says. "We don't have a RED DOG anymore, but they did have an impact. That unit and beat officers, over time, pushed those people inside. Now the neighborhood drug dealer will sell from his home or his apartment."

That would appear to hold true — except when it comes to crack. ADAM data collectors also asked inmates where they'd made their last drug purchase. Sixty-eight percent of the inmates who reported last purchasing crack said they still did so in an outdoor area, the highest outdoor sales percentage of any drug. Powder cocaine, like the rest of the narcotics, was most often purchased inside someone's house or apartment. That Atlanta's drug dealings now exist largely behind closed doors would seem to present new challenges for narcotics investigators. But, Lt. O'Connor won't discuss enforcement tactics in any detail for risk of his unit losing its "operational edge" on criminals.

"Do you watch TV?" O'Connor asks. "Well, rent 'Traffic' or something. They probably got it right."

Where from here?

Judge Doris L. Downs, who oversees Fulton County's drug court program, spends her days trying to give lower-level offenders the chance to get treatment rather than just rotting behind bars. "I think that drug use plays an extremely high part in our arrest records, across the board," Downs says.

"And if you want to reduce the chance crime will happen again, reduce the recidivism rate for any one person, the way you do that is treatment," she adds. "Incarceration may be a necessary evil, but treatment is a must, whether you're incarcerated or not. It should be a requirement of the sentencing for anything drug-related."

But where Atlantans excel in the doing of drugs, they falter in the getting of help. According to ADAM's report, only 8 percent of inmates in Atlanta said they'd ever utilized outpatient drug treatment — the lowest percent of all the sites. Only 12 percent ever utilized inpatient treatment, also the lowest percentage. And those figures represented a sharp drop since even the previous year. Jack Killorin, director of Atlanta's HIDTA, says he's encouraged by a trend he's noticed, one that could eventually negatively effect demand for cocaine: The price is going up, and the quality is simultaneously going down. "The drugs are approaching a level of crap and the price is going up," says Killorin. "That's a great victory, other than what we'd like them to do, which is seek treatment."

Unfortunately, rather than seeking help, many addicts just seek a new drug. Killorin says his agency is already observing a move into other substances.

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