Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Citizens' Police Academy: Narcotics Squad-Part One

By Annette Dashofy

The one session of Citizens’ Police Academy that I missed last time around was the Narcotics Squad. This week, I made up that session. When Sgt. Doug Epler started unpacking his props, I sensed this was going to be interesting. I was especially intrigued by a car battery sitting on the floor among the cases and boxes of drug paraphernalia. Was there a mad scientist in the house?

The Narcotics Squad in Pittsburgh consists of two impact squads, who work at street level; two investigative squads who do more in depth investigations and surveillances; a vice squad who deals with all varieties of prostitution; and a weed-and-seed unit that works off site doing in depth, long-term investigations. Each squad consists of only five or six officers. Each. City-wide.

They are kept very busy.

The number one drug problem in Pittsburgh is heroin. Note: this is not true elsewhere. But here, heroin can be found in any neighborhood, any age, rich or poor, black or white. Inside the city, a stamp bag of heroin runs around $10. In surrounding counties, it might go for $15 to $20 a bag, so folks from outside come into the city to make their purchases.

Sgt. Epler passed around a wide selection of drug-related items. But only fake drugs. Like Cremora instead of the real thing. More on that later.

A stamp bag of heroin is just that. They use the waxed glassine packets used by stamp collectors to package the drug. An addict might use 10 or 20 bags per day. At $10 each, you can see the problem. Small bundles are held together with little hair bands. Fifty stamp bags are bundled into a brick, wrapped in porno paper, the Auto Trader, or newspaper. Why porno paper? As a marketing ploy. Think the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Buy a brick of heroin, get something extra to entertain yourself with as well.

If you find bits and pieces of torn glassine stamp envelopes and/or discarded hair bands lying around, you might want to contact the police as these are signs of heroin use in your neighborhood.

Users tend to start out snorting the stuff. They believe they aren’t junkies because they aren’t using needles. But after a while, the drug burns out the receptors in their noses and it doesn’t work any longer. That’s when the heroin user turns to the needle.

Heroin use is a team sport. Addicts share with their buddies. Girlfriends and boyfriends share. Sgt. Epler offered a demonstration of the process. Relax. No one was actually injected. The drug is cooked in a spoon. A cigarette is torn apart so that a small portion of the filter can be used to filter sediment from the cooked heroin as it’s drawn into the needle. The needle is stuck into the vein, but the user needs to be certain that he has hit the vein, rather than simply being in the muscle, so he draws back on the plunger until he sees blood enter the syringe. Then he injects part of the heroin. Next, (team sport, remember) his buddy or girlfriend is stuck, the plunger pulled back to draw blood, indicating a good stick, and the rest of the heroin is injected into the second user. That same needle is then capped and saved for the next usage. Perhaps with a different friend.

While the AIDS virus dies quickly, hepatitis will live for four days outside the body. Think about it.

A heroin addict must have his drug as soon as he gets up in the morning. Something like how I need my morning coffee. Except, if I don’t get my coffee, I get cranky. If a heroin addict doesn’t get his fix, he gets horribly sick with cramps and nausea. So every morning, you will see the neighborhood addicts out first thing to score.

So, more signs of heroin use in your neighborhood would be needles and syringes in the street. Diabetics aren’t that careless. If you see needles, it’s heroin.

One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation was the marketing side of the business. There is branding and brand loyalty and brand recognition… The dealer will make up an ink stamp to mark the stamp bags. One such ink stamp is “Why?Not.” Another might be “HellBoy.” A user might like one and not the other, so will seek out his preference. If word gets out that a particular brand is especially deadly, users will rush to buy the stuff up! They think they’re going to do it just right so it doesn’t kill them. Apparently, it’s really good up until the whole dying part.

Sometimes, heroin is transported in the tips of party balloons which are carried in the dealers’ mouths. When a user buys from him, the dealer spits out one of the tiny balloons and the user sticks it in his mouth. This way, if caught, they simply swallow the evidence. Later, when it all comes out in the end, they wash off the balloon and have their party.

If you see small rubber knots from broken balloons lying around, you have drug users in the neighborhood.

Finally, about the Cremora. The cops gained access to a dealer’s phone and called some of his users to say they had stamp bags for sale. Only the stamp bags were filled with Cremora. They used a kid’s sea horse stamp to mark the bags. One buyer didn’t know anything about the sea horse brand, but was desperate and made the purchase. As they attempted to arrest him, he ran away, snorting the Cremora out of the bag. Once caught, he complained that he wasn’t getting high. When told he’d snorted Cremora, he panicked and wanted to go to the hospital to be checked out.

Apparently, he was more concerned about snorting coffee creamer than about snorting heroin.

Next week: Crack cocaine, weed, Meth, and that car battery


Anonymous said...

Interesting, Annette. Luckily, my own experience with heroin is all second-hand (a fear of needles can be very protective), but I've known some users, including some who would try the killer stuff just to see whether or not they would die. It's a weird world out there.

Annette said...

Gina, I found myself laughing and shaking my head in amazement at what goes on in that world. And as one who gets squeamish about having blood drawn in a lab, yeah, this would never be my drug of choice.

Anonymous said...

Great information, Annette!

Drug and alcohol has never been my specialty, but I do notice how people's priorities shift when they become addicted. The addicting substance becomes their priority, period. Anything else (including important relationships) becomes just a means to that end.

Quite sad, really.

Joyce Tremel said...

Very good info, Annette!

Annette said...

I've always known that most crime has a drug aspect to it, but when you figure an addict is using 20 to 30 stamp bags per day at $10 per bag and that addict isn't likely to be able to hold down a job... Where do you think that money's going to come from?

Sad? Yes. Frightening? Definitely.

Jenna said...

Excellent job, Annette. Lots of useful information, and very well written, too. Wow, what a crazy world we're living in, huh?

Anonymous said...

Eye-opening blog, Annette.

I personally know someone who injected heroin once, in college in the early 70's, and who has Hep C because of it. One time.

Terry Odell said...

Great post -- I took the Civilian Police Academy course given by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando and I'm part of their alumni group. (As a matter of fact, this week, I'm volunteering at the sWAT Roundup International as a 'perk' of having taken the course). It's a fantastic experience, and as you're showing, amazing writing fodder.
I think any cop will tell you, drugs are going to show up as part of the picture in almost every crime.

Anonymous said...

Annette -
Here's another perspective, law enforcement personnel who favor legalization:
Those 20-30 stamp bags sold legally would cost a fraction as much, cutting out the need for addicts to steal to support their habits and the need for dealers to kill to protect their profits.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Holy cow, Annette, wonderful post, and so informative. You'll never look at a work in progress the same, eh? I would make such a bad drug addict. Imagine someone carrying heroine balloon in his mouth, needles. Oy! It's amazing how MANY succumb to this addiction. In my county it's Meth. Interesting that heroine a more expensive narcotic is predominant in Pittsburgh. Did your instructor speculate why? Thanks for posting.

Annette said...

Donnell, yes, he did. The pipeline for heroin runs from the east coast: Philly and New Jersey...fairly close by. We don't have a big Meth problem--something I'll get into in detail next week--because one of the major ingredients is not easily accessible here.

Gina, I don't know that that's the answer. Of course, I have no idea what the answer IS, either.

Dana King said...

You're saving me a ton of work. My next project will take place in a fictional county adjacent to Pittsburgh, as I want to use the area, but not be tied to closely to actualPittsburgh events. This post (and, apparently, the next) are giving me a good lead into things I should know about drugs in the Burgh.

For anyone interested in what the life of an addict is like, I cannot recommend THE CORNER by David Simon and Ed Burns enough. Wonderful, mesmerizing book, if hard and frustrating to read in places.

Annette said...

Dana, I'm thrilled to be able to help!

Anonymous said...

Another fantastic blog, Annette!

Have you considered putting them all together in some kind of collection? I'm serious here.

One of my dearest friend's son was a heroin addict. Really scary stuff, and as you said - no boundaries in terms of economics, race, or education.

It took three trips to rehab, a couple of jail terms and a severe case of hepatitis - among other things - but he has been clean for two years. He says every day is a new battle. One of the things he had to do was leave Pittsburgh - because the temptation really is every where.

Thanks again for a great blog!

Kathy Sweeney

Annette said...

Sure, Kathy, I'd consider it. Any publishers out there?

How sad about your friend's son. It is tragic. I wish him well with his battle.

Liana Laverentz said...

Fasciating stuff, Annette. Now I'll be checking the ground in my neighborhood for supposedly "innocuous" debris...

Annette said...

Liana, if you find anything suspicious, make sure you call the police. And never handle discarded needles.

Jenna said...

A collection might be fun. Or maybe you could try to make some money selling these blogs as articles? Either to local magazines or newspapers, or to some of the mystery zines? They might be interested in 'research', right? Make a few dollars, get some publishing credits; it can't hurt.

Sara said...

Wow. That was really fascinating.
It's amazing how crazy that lifestyle is to us, and how normal it is to them. Sad.