Pubdate: Mon, 22 Jul 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Benjamin Wallace-Wells


On a placid Thursday in November, the phones started ringing at the Radnor 
Township Police Department as Sgt. Sue Cory had never heard before, with 
reports of a fight and guns drawn outside the Genuardi's supermarket in St. 

Radnor police officers jumped in their cars, sirens as loud as could be. 
But when they got to the store, they were flashed aside by a more imposing 
set of badges: the FBI's.

"A club-drug bust," Cory said. "They were doing a buy, and we had no idea."

For years, suburban youth have gone to Philadelphia to buy drugs. Now, 
police say the popularity of club drugs, whose dealers are mostly suburban, 
means that that culture is changing: Authorities are starting to see city 
buyers venture to the suburbs for their ecstasy.

The shift signals a growing market for the drug, which, suburban police 
say, is beginning to attract established, violent drug gangs and open-air 
drug markets - elements that small suburban police departments may not be 
well-equipped to handle.

"We're at the same place right now with ecstasy as we were with cocaine in 
1979," said Mark Kleiman, director of the Center for Drug Policy Analysis 
at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He said that prices of club drugs were declining, that more people were 
using them, and that the dealer network had become more professional and, 
potentially, violent.

With declining markets for heroin, cocaine and marijuana, national 
enforcement experts say, the growth area is in club drugs, and particularly 

"Drug gangs are businesses, and they're going where the profits are. We've 
seen increased growth in organized criminal activity around ecstasy, and 
that means you're much more worried about violence," said Joseph Peters, 
assistant deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But the drug-policy office, headed by President Bush's drug czar, John P. 
Walters, says Philadelphia is the only city in the Northeast where ecstasy 
markets are as strong in the suburbs as in the city. Every other 
metropolitan area's markets are centered in the city.

Local suburban police officers say they have seen that, too.

"We're starting to pick up kids from the inner city coming out to the 
suburbs to buy ecstasy, in particular, but also some of these other drugs," 
said Tom Lowe, an undercover investigator with the Pennsylvania Attorney 
General's Office.

"It's something we've never seen before with any other drug," Kleiman said.

Lowe, the state's chief club-drug investigator, said suburban traffic is 
heavy enough that he makes all of his buys in the suburbs. He has about 10 
long-term investigations a year that end in the arrests of distributors, he 
said. Three years ago, his office ran no ecstasy investigations.

Police frequently use the umbrella term club drug to describe the stimulant 
ecstasy, the hallucinogenic ketamine, and the depressant Gamma 
hydroxybutyrate (GHB). The drugs are not pharmacologically similar but 
initially became popular at raves - all-night dance bashes featuring techno 

The drugs have become more popular in the larger youth culture. From 1998 
to 2000, the last year for which the drug-policy office has statistics, the 
number of ecstasy users in the nation quadrupled. And experts say that 9 
percent of high school seniors admit that they have used the drug, whose 
street value in the area runs from $20 to $35 per dose.

But because the FBI's uniform crime report - which suburban police 
departments use - lumps ecstasy arrests with those involving other drugs, 
neither local departments nor federal agencies such as the FBI and the Drug 
Enforcement Administration have statistics on ecstasy trends.

Ecstasy began to gain popularity through the largely white, suburban rave 
scene in the early 1990s, and police say dealers tended to emerge from that 

But over the last three to four years, experts say, profits have meant that 
ecstasy distribution has become more professional, and most of the drug 
supply around the United States is now made overseas and shipped in by 
Russian, Israeli and Italian mobsters - a supply chain that resembles 
cocaine's or heroin's.

Because the market for ecstasy developed first in the suburbs, that is 
where many retail-level dealers remain.

"Kids in the suburbs have never had to go into the city to buy these drugs. 
The dealers live out here in the suburbs, too," said Richard Harkness, 
superintendent of the Tredyffrin Township Police.

"We've had multiple arrests in Tredyffrin in the last years for every type 
of club drug out there; three, four years ago, we didn't see any of these 

Unlike cocaine and marijuana, sold in urban street markets, Lowe and other 
police officials say, club drugs have tended to be sold quietly, indoors - 
in clubs, houses, parties and schools - between buyers and sellers who know 
each other.

"With ecstasy, unlike cocaine, most of the kids I talk to don't have to go 
anywhere to buy these drugs. When they're buying, they're buying from their 
friends," said Shelli Barbush, an Exton therapist who specializes in 
addicted adolescents.

These small, social-first dealing circles, police say, have made ecstasy 
rings difficult to penetrate. But that culture, some say, is beginning to 

"We're starting to get reports of open-air markets where dealers are 
routinely selling to people they don't know. That means you're a very good 
robbery target, and that means you start carrying a gun," Kleiman said.

Along the Black Horse Pike in suburban Camden County (detectives say they 
will not be more specific about sites in order not to compromise 
investigations), ecstasy dealers stand alongside cocaine and heroin dealers 
outside apartment complexes, waiting for buyers to drive up, said Greg 
Reinert, spokesman for the Camden County prosecutor's office.

His office recently seized a cocaine shipment into Camden that included 2 
kilos of ecstasy - 8,000 pills, with a street value of $200,000, bound for 
the South Jersey suburbs.

And "as the profits are seen and the other networks are getting involved, 
there's a greater potential for violence in them trying to exercise control 
over the ecstasy market," Reinert said.

Police broke up a Voorhees ring in September whose leaders were charged 
with distributing ecstasy around the Philadelphia suburbs. The take: 1,350 
ecstasy pills (street value: $33,750), $27,000 in cash, and guns.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania charged 
five men in December with running an Allentown-based ring to import a 
million pills of ecstasy from the Netherlands (street value: $25 million) 
and supply them to the Philadelphia area.

And the FBI bust at the St. Davids Genuardi's netted 900 vials of ketamine. 
William Beckwith of Haverford and Jon Sczepkowski of Ardmore, each of whom 
were convicted of conspiracy to distribute ketamine, will be sentenced 
early next month.

Most large-scale drug investigations in the suburbs are run through 
countywide efforts from small teams of county detectives supplemented by 
task forces assembled by district attorney's offices.

But the officers who form these task forces are usually local police who 
work as full-time detectives within their township departments. When they 
work on a drug case, they do it after hours and bill the district 
attorney's office for overtime, said John Caldwell, an Upper Merion 
detective assigned to the Montgomery County drug task force.

And though Caldwell says the practice "helps us get our tentacles out into 
places we might not otherwise look," he also says the most effective 
ecstasy busts are going to come from "federal and state agencies who can go 
farther up the chain, who can do interdictions at airports... . We're not 
going to be able to do much to stop people from buying drugs out here."

Policing experts agree.

"The fragmentation which exists in law enforcement and is more acute in the 
suburbs... is a factor in inhibiting an effective response to the drug 
trade, said Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of business at Johns Hopkins 
University who specializes in policing issues. "The drug dealers don't stop 
at the borders of Upper Merion Township, but the police do."

For the moment, local police say they are doing what they have always done 
- - making arrests and spending what time they can cultivating informants, 
setting up buys.

Also, they are bracing for more. Said Tredyffrin Police Capt. Andrew 
Chambers: "We're scared as heck of this stuff."
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