Pubdate: Sun, 20 Dec 2015
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2015 The Baltimore Sun Company
Authors: Jean Marbella and Catherine Rentz


For Anthony Miles, Feb. 15, 2013, was a busy day of juggling calls, 
setting up meetings and touting a high-quality shipment he was 
expecting soon. Still, he found time to put air in the tires of his 
Mercedes and to note how well the day was going. Raising a large 
stack of bills in both hands, he bragged to a companion: I just made 
$20,000 in one hour.

Just three days later, Miles was less euphoric. He grumbled he was 
making "chump change" while an associate was clearing $150,000 a day 
"with his eyes closed."

Workplace jealousies aside, Miles and his colleagues were making 
eye-popping sums in their chosen profession of heroin dealing - 
however fleetingly. Using evidence, including audio-video recordings 
of Miles' conversations, federal prosecutors would indict and 
ultimately win convictions against him and about a dozen other 
members of the drug-trafficking organization, seizing some of the 
spoils, including more than $140,000 in cash, luxury cars, a 33-foot 
Doral boat and a Cartier watch encrusted with more than 20 carats of diamonds.

In Baltimore, where heroin has a long-entrenched history, the drug 
has created a thriving subeconomy, providing funds for dealers who 
buy mansions in the suburbs or simply help family members with rent 
and grocery money.

The size of this subeconomy is not easily calculated, though 
nationally, experts estimate heroin users spend about $27 billion a 
year on the drug.

In Baltimore, where there are an estimated 19,000 heroin users, 
including roughly 9,500 chronic users, annual spending on the drug is 
estimated to be at least $165 million. Such estimates - derived from 
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's 2015 heroin task force and a 2014 
study by the RAND Corp. for the White House - are imprecise given the 
nature of the drug market and the difficulty of surveying heavy 
heroin users. But experts say the actual valuation is likely much 
higher because of money spent by occasional users.

Lamont Lewis, a former drug dealer now on the search for employment, 
explains how money works on the corners and what different people 
make for different jobs. (Karl Merton ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

Sometimes indications emerge of the scale of the trade here: When the 
brothers of one local kingpin, Steven Blackwell, were kidnapped, he 
came up with $500,000 for ransom. When investigators searched a stash 
house and home of another dealer, Sean Wilson, who was ultimately 
convicted, they found $464,283 and $74,980, respectively. And when 
the home of a Miles associate, Antoine Wiggins, was searched, a 
bedroom dresser drawer yielded more than $81,000.

But as in the legitimate economy, experts say, such wealth is largely 
limited to those at the top levels of the heroin trade. At the 
bottom, the so-called "corner boys" who sell on the street can be 
making as little as minimum wage, according to economists who have 
studied the market and those who have plied the trade themselves.

"Nobody's getting [rich] if they're on the corner," said James 
Wooding, 51, a former heroin dealer and addict who works as a janitor 
at Tuerk House, the treatment program in West Baltimore that helped 
him get clean two years ago. "They're just making sneaker money, or 
for some girl, diapers for the baby."

And yet there seems to be an unending supply of mostly young men 
willing to do this entry-level work - however low-paying and, of 
course, illegal and dangerous.

Among them was Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old whose death in police 
custody in April triggered protests and rioting in Baltimore and led 
to criminal charges against six police officers. The first trial, of 
Officer William G. Porter, resulted in a mistrial last week when 
jurors could not reach a unanimous decision on any of the four 
charges he faced.

Gray had been arrested more than 15 times on drug and other charges, 
and served more than two years in jail for narcotics charges, yet he 
repeatedly returned to the corners. Friends and acquaintances say he 
was aiming to stop dealing when he was arrested in April at North 
Avenue and North Mount Street, an area authorities had targeted for 
an enhanced "narcotics initiative."

It is an all-too-familiar cycle in Baltimore: Those with little 
education and thus few job prospects find their way to the lowest 
rungs of the drug trade, touting on the corner or serving as 
lookouts. At some point, they are arrested and end up with a criminal 
record that makes them even less attractive to the legitimate 
economy. And so they return to drug dealing, often in the 
neighborhoods they live in.

"They're basically unemployable," said Peter Reuter, a University of 
Maryland public policy and criminology professor who founded and 
directed the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. "There are not many 
options for them."

Reuter, an economist, said there is another reason so many continue 
to enter what at least initially is a low-paying and highly dangerous 
field - the chance, however slim, of moving up the ranks to become 
the guy driving the Bentley rather than the one manning a corner. 
Economists call it the tournament model: As in an NCAA basketball 
tournament bracket, those in the outermost slots imagine themselves 
winning the championship - despite enormous odds.

"The only way to win the lottery," Reuter said, "is to get in."

Starting off young

Lamont Lewis, 43, was one of the "lucky" ones - until drugs made his 
life come apart. As a dealer, he amassed more than $800,000, a red 
Saab, a burgundy Pontiac Grand Am, a sky-blue Camaro and designer 
clothes, he said. Like many, he started young, but within a few 
years, he found himself broke and locked up on a drug distribution conviction.

On a recent afternoon, Lewis stood on a West Baltimore corner where 
several teenage boys were clustered in front of rowhouses; nearby, a 
man pushed his son on a tricycle along the sidewalk. A car stopped in 
the middle of the street as the driver transacted some business with 
the teens. An exasperated woman in the next car honked, yelling out 
her window, "Come on, move! I'm on my way to pick up my boy from school!"

Lewis knew the corner to be a spot to buy heroin. A teen on the 
corner said he started dealing heroin at age 10; an older man said he 
began at 14. On that day, "pee-wee" capsules were selling for as 
little as $6 for a small amount of diluted heroin, or $40 a capsule 
for raw heroin. The teen said he made about $100 from selling a 
"50-pack" of heroin capsules worth $500.

Lewis said the boys start selling drugs at an earlier age and face 
more danger than when he started in the mid-1980s. Now a father of 
two, he said he got out of the drug business three years ago, but the 
damage to his life continues. Because of criminal convictions that 
pop up when employers do a background check, he has a hard time 
finding a job that supports his family - let alone the $1,000 a day 
he sometimes made as a dealer.

Lewis has taken job training and computer classes at the Northwest 
Career Center and has applied for a number of jobs - but his last 
one, as a manual laborer, paid just $9 an hour. His take-home for the 
entire year was less than what he made in two weeks hustling drugs, 
the West Baltimore man said.

He was 14 when he started selling marijuana, eventually graduating to 
heroin and cocaine. He grew up in awe of his uncle, a heroin dealer. 
Even his uncle's death from a beating and stabbing proved dazzling to 
the young Lewis.

"Six large unmarked black vans drove up to the [funeral] service," he 
recalled, and several men emerged to talk with his grandmother. "They 
handed her $50,000 and told her, 'We gonna find whoever did this. And 
you don't have to involve police no more.'"

Lewis feels a bit of nostalgia as he drives past corners where he 
used to deal drugs. The rush of danger, the cat-and-mouse game with 
police, the scheming - like getting a job at a car wash so he could 
slip drugs to his customers as they drove through.

The business is much different now, he and other former dealers say. 
For one thing, heroin is cheaper and more plentiful, with Mexican 
farmers growing increasingly more poppies to supply a growing demand. 
Observers say the fight for customers and turf is fiercer than ever.

Cyril Scovens, 54, a former dealer who now works at Tuerk House, said 
those selling on the corner today are likely making just $1 on every 
$10 they sell.

"That's why you have so much competition among the drug dealers, the 
corner boys," said Scovens, who began dealing as a 13-year-old. 
"Payday may be great, but the average day, you're fighting the competition.

"In order to hold my corner, I have to be ruthless. I have to kill 
for my corner. I have to have you know I'm willing to kill for my corner."

Evolving global economy

What plays out on Baltimore's corners these days is the result of 
larger trends in the global heroin trade.

While heroin once had to make its way here from faraway Afghanistan - 
which remains the world's dominant producer - the U.S. supply now 
largely comes from Mexico and Colombia, experts say. With more 
marijuana being grown in the U.S. as a number of states legalize or 
decriminalize it, Mexican farmers who previously grew pot are 
switching over to poppies, the source of heroin.

Seizures of heroin are up 81 percent in the past five years, 
according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which intercepted 
5,014 kilograms - about the same weight as an adult elephant. 
Traffickers are moving the drug in larger volumes as well, the DEA says.

Dealers have stayed one step ahead of law enforcement and now order 
more heroin to account for expected seizures, said Neill Franklin, a 
retired official with the Baltimore Police Department and Maryland 
State Police. He grew disenchanted with the war on drugs and now 
directs Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for drug 
policy reforms.

"So when [authorities] lay a spread of drugs and money on a table to 
show the loot they caught, it doesn't matter," he said. "Suppliers 
built it into the program."

If the supply of drugs is larger than ever, so is demand.

Users spend $100 billion on four drugs - cocaine, heroin, marijuana 
and methamphetamine - according to an estimate Reuter and colleagues 
at RAND developed for the White House last year. Of that, heroin's 
share was $27 billion and, by all indications, growing.

The year 2010 was the start of what many consider the current heroin 
epidemic. That is when alarm over overdose deaths from prescription 
opioids led to greater restrictions on "pill mills" and other 
dispensers. That was also the year OxyContin was reformulated to make 
it harder for abusers to crush tablets for snorting or dissolve them 
in water for injecting. The change came after its maker, Purdue 
Pharma, pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal charges that it misled 
regulators and the public about the risk of addiction.

Those measures had the unintended consequence of prompting many 
addicts to switch to the much cheaper and available street opioid, 
heroin. About four out of five new heroin users had previously abused 
prescription painkillers that are now scarcer and more expensive on 
the illicit market, federal officials say.

"Thirty milligrams of Oxy is $30, as opposed to heroin - for $30 you 
can get three bags of heroin," said Gary Tuggle, who until this 
summer was the special agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore 
district. Each of the bags could contain about 200 milligrams of 
heroin, he said, or 20 times the amount of OxyContin, which is 
chemically similar to heroin. Whether this hypothetical drug buyer 
got 20 times the bang for the buck, though, would depend on the 
purity of the heroin as well as the way it is ingested.

Not only is heroin selling for record-low prices these days - Reuter 
of the University of Maryland said its price has fallen 
"relentlessly" for the past 25 years - it is more potent than ever.

"Fifteen, 20 years ago, 1 kilogram of heroin cost $120,000 to 
$160,000 in Baltimore. Today: $60,000 to $70,000. Purity then was 2 
to 5 percent. Today, it's as high as 85 percent," Tuggle said.

Blue-collar decline

Tuggle, who now heads the DEA's Philadelphia field division, 
remembers "stepping over needles" of the drug addicts in his East 
Baltimore neighborhood in the 1970s.

At the time, the Baltimore region offered thousands of well-paying 
industrial jobs, including those at Bethlehem Steel and General 
Motors. "Back then, [the neighborhood] was largely blue-collar, most 
of the parents worked at Beth Steel and the auto plant. When that 
closed down, as the city transitioned from industrial to more 
tourism, my community couldn't make the adjustment. I saw heroin use increase."

The lack of such well-paying jobs in many city neighborhoods for 
decades now has only helped feed the drug trade. Philip White, now 
51, remembers getting mocked for the fast-food job he took as a 
teenager by friends who had already found more lucrative work selling 
drugs after school.

"They had the best clothes, the best shoes, money, women. They had 
heroin," recalled White, who now works at Tuerk House.

White worked at Chicken George in Walbrook Junction, a popular 
Baltimore chain that went bankrupt in the 1980s. "After taxes, I 
would have $100 [after a week]. My friends were laughing at me. 
Minimum wage was $3 and change."

He started dealing drugs, and proved good at counting money. He would 
get paid in drugs, and eventually, his addiction took over until, 
about 10 years ago, he began the road to recovery.

Tuggle said that while some relatives became heroin addicts, he was 
never interested in drugs. Instead, he became a Baltimore police 
officer before joining the DEA in 1992.

Today, the heroin problem has spread to Baltimore's suburbs, well 
beyond inner-city neighborhoods.

After more than 30 years in law enforcement, Tuggle has seen three 
waves of drug addiction.

The addicts of his youth were often "generational," the offspring of 
older heroin addicts or veterans who had gotten hooked while serving 
in Vietnam, he said. Then the 1980s brought the crack cocaine era, he 
said, followed now by "this new generation of heroin addict, this new 
subculture" of converts from prescription pills.

"This heroin epidemic actually dwarfs" its predecessors, Tuggle said. 
"This has a feeder system."

Caught in a brutal cycle

Heroin bracketed Freddie Gray's life from the start to its 
abbreviated end. He was born to a mother who acknowledged using the 
drug, and after he turned 18, records show he was arrested more than 
a dozen times on drug charges. In the five months prior to his death, 
he was arrested three times on heroin charges.

Such is the lot of a street-level dealer, said Creston Smith, a 
lawyer who represented Gray in 2013.

"That is the easiest way to get arrested and the easiest way to get 
convicted," Smith said.

Gray was not a "big drug dealer," Smith said. In fact, in the case he 
handled, Gray was accused of being the lookout for a heroin deal that 
took place at the intersection of North Avenue and North Mount 
Street. The charges against Gray in that incident were indefinitely 
postponed when he agreed to perform 100 hours of community service, Smith said.

Street-level drug dealers tend to cycle through the criminal justice 
system - from arrest to prison or probation and back to streets until 
they get arrested again.

"These kids either end up in a morgue or detention center because 
once they get their first arrest - like Freddie Gray - they then get 
the next one and the next one," said Franklin, of Law Enforcement 
Against Prohibition.

"They get arrests over and over," he said, "like planes flying in at BWI."

Elizabeth Embry, director of the Maryland attorney general's criminal 
division, agreed. As a city prosecutor earlier in her career, she 
remembers handling the misdemeanor docket, through which many smaller 
drug offenses are processed.

"You see this assembly line," said Embry, who is currently on leave 
to run for mayor. "But you're not solving the problem. You have 
someone arrested for a small possession, they get a little sentence. 
It's very frustrating."

Embry, who served on Gov. Larry Hogan's heroin task force, said a 
longer-term solution is "not getting people into the system in the 
first place" - with more effective treatment for addiction, for 
example, and better schools and job opportunities.

The gubernatorial task force concluded its work early this month by 
recommending expanded access to treatment, tighter monitoring of 
prescription drugs and greater focus on groups like inmates and 
ex-offenders. On Thursday, a bipartisan General Assembly panel called 
for a dramatic reduction in sentences for drug offenses - part of a 
plan to imprison thousands fewer people and use the savings to help 
others stay out of jail.

Changing the state's approach to drug dealing is admittedly a huge 
undertaking, but then, drug trafficking has ripple effects beyond 
simply the buyers and sellers, Embry said.

"When you're in the black market economy, you can't sue someone for 
being disrespectful," she said. "If someone steals your car, instead 
of reporting it, you go and shoot them."

Well-organized crime

While the exact size of Baltimore's heroin economy is hard to 
measure, authorities like the DEA's Tuggle say trafficking of the 
drug is "a major source of revenue" for gangs. They run their 
organizations in a business-like, albeit violent, way, he said.

"They protect the brand, protect the territory, hence the violence, 
he said. "You have to be a financier, a marketer. You have to have 
business skills to maintain a supply chain."

A federal indictment earlier this year of members of the Black 
Guerrilla Family - which gained much notoriety in recent years for 
taking control of the Baltimore City Detention Center - offers a 
glimpse into how such organizations operate.

"BGF controlled drug territories called 'shops' and permitted only 
BGF members to sell drugs in these shops," according to charges filed 
in June against Timothy Michael Gray, identified as the citywide 
commander of the gang, and 13 other men. "Any non-BGF members who 
wished to distribute drugs in these shops were forced to pay a tax or 
were targeted for violence by BGF members." (Gray has pleaded guilty 
to racketeering and will be sentenced in February.)

The indictment said the gang was organized into geographical 
"regimes" or "bubbles" and controlled by a commander, lieutenant 
commander and ministers of justice, defense, education and finance. 
One member, nearly daily over a seven-month period, supplied 
"wholesale quantities of heroin" to someone who then resold it to 
customers in Howard County, the indictment said.

The document went on to detail gang's leaders' various activities, 
many of which mirrored those of conventional businesses: holding 
regular meetings, collecting payments, serving as middlemen between 
wholesale distributors and retail customers, and handling 
quality-control issues with their product.

But their business was drug trafficking - heroin branded with names 
like "Hitman" and "Body Bag," crack and pills - and some customers 
were ripped off or, worse, died of overdoses. Gang members themselves 
faced violence from within, with punishments for infractions 
including beatings or even death.

At least one member, though, was dealt with more tamely: after an 
unspecified infraction, he was ordered "to write an essay about every 
position in the 'bubble.'"

The most detailed portrait of a drug-dealing gang's operations likely 
is a paper published in 2000 by Steven D. Levitt, of "Freakonomics" 
fame, and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh in the Quarterly Journal of 
Economics. The paper was based on four years of ledgers kept by the 
bookkeeper of a Chicago crack-dealing gang and given to Venkatesh, 
now a Columbia University sociologist who has long researched and 
written about the underground economy.

The gang's monthly revenues, which rose from $18,500 to $68,400 over 
a four-year period, came from drug sales, member dues and "street 
taxes" - money extorted from those doing business on gang territory, 
according to the paper. Expenses included wages, lawyers fees, 
bribes, mercenaries and inevitably, members' funerals.

Whether all drug dealers keep such good track of their in- and 
outflow is unclear. But among the exhibits entered in the trial of 
Savino Braxton, 58, of Baltimore in U.S. District Court this year was 
a tally sheet he used to track customers - first names and nicknames 
scribbled on a scrap of paper with stars next to some of them. 
Another exhibit was a back-of-an-envelope calculation of what he 
would make selling 1,128 grams of heroin at $75 per gram rather than 
$70 per gram - a total of $84,600 versus $78,960.

His math was good, but ultimately, he was convicted and sentenced to 
20 years in prison.

Spreading epidemic

Heroin has been much in the news in recent years, fueled by an 
alarming spike in overdose fatalities and a sense that it was no 
longer "just" an inner-city problem and had spread to suburban, and 
increasingly, white populations. According to research published in 
the journal JAMA Psychiatry last year, nearly 90 percent of people 
who began using heroin nationwide in the previous decade were white.

A study led by Dr. Devang H. Gandhi, an associate professor at the 
University of Maryland School of Medicine, found a similar ratio at a 
heroin detox program in downtown Baltimore - 94 percent of the 18- to 
25-year-olds who sought treatment were white.

Baltimore is a city in which heroin has remained a constant over the 
years, though like other parts of the country, it has seen a jump in 
overdose death rates as purer forms of the drug, sometimes laced with 
the potent opioid fentanyl, have entered the market.

Such is heroin's role in the city's history that the recent death at 
age 73 of "Little Melvin" Williams, the West Baltimore drug kingpin 
alleged to have grossed $1 million a day before being imprisoned and 
turning his life around, drew mostly generous, nuanced commentary 
from civic leaders. People still talk about Williams and other 
traffickers, such as Maurice "Peanut" King, who headed a 
multimillion-dollar drug organization in the 1980s and is considered 
among the first to break an unofficial code of the streets.

"The thing the drug dealers didn't do was use kids in their drug 
organization," the DEA's Tuggle said. "Maurice 'Peanut' King, he 
started using kids in his drug organization. Went out and gave mopeds 
to the kids to run the money and drugs."

The advantage: If police caught the kids speeding through the streets 
and alleys, there was little penalty because they were juveniles, Tuggle said.

Drug dealers also had a certain status in their impoverished 
neighborhoods - Williams, for example, was credited with helping to 
disperse crowds during the 1968 riots that followed the assassination 
of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Former dealers note that, for good or ill, they were a part of their 
communities, and among the few living there who had money to spread around.

"We'd do block parties, buy football equipment for kids," recalled 
Scovens, of Tuerk House. "You're not seeing that anymore."

"None of the money stays in Baltimore," he said, adding that he 
believes many of the dealers higher up in drug rings "don't live in 
Baltimore City - they live in the counties."

Scovens characterized his drug-dealing group as a neighborhood crew 
rather than as a gang. "It was guys who lived in Park Heights. We 
grew up together," he said. "Someone needed money to pay the rent, we'd pay."

He doesn't sugarcoat the immense harm caused by the drug trade - he 
fell into addiction so deeply he wasn't worth much as a dealer, 
became homeless and lived in cars and abandoned houses for years. He 
nearly stabbed his own brother in a fight over drugs, but instead 
drove himself to a hospital and demanded to be admitted to the 
psychiatric ward.

"Death is around you all the time," Scovens said. "There's a culture 
based on violence."


Intractable problems

As part of its continuing coverage of Freddie Gray's death, The 
Baltimore Sun is examining some of the intractable problems that 
affected his life - and still trouble thousands of city residents. 
This series of occasional articles has focused on lead poisoning, 
segregation in public housing and other topics.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom