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Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

An addict's obsession

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Editor's note: John's name has been changed.

John vividly remembers the day about 16 years ago when he went from being a recreational cocaine user to a crack addict.

"It was at a party, and we were snorting cocaine, and that had a lot of appeal to me. I was a speeder, I was into moving fast and feeling brilliant, and that's what the drug does to you, it makes you feel powerful."

The cocaine parties were fun, with music and lots of laughs, said John. But on that fateful night, there was another party going on -- one that was much darker.

"All of a sudden I saw people starting to move into a different room, where they started to smoke something that looked like rock. I noticed a change in the people that were there. We stopped laughing and talking and there was no music. It was quiet, and people had this expression on their faces. I don't know, it's hard to describe this look.

"My first hit brought something to me that was like a rush I had never had before. It made me feel wonderful."

That night would start John's 16-year obsession with a highly destructive force -- crack cocaine. The obsession would take him through numerous stints in treatment facilities -- totaling about four years of treatment during his 16 as an addict -- and lead him from his home in St. Louis to the streets of Cape Girardeau's south side. There he would find a thriving crack business, full of dealers and junkies congregating on street corners and in houses. Whenever he needed the drug, it was always available as long as he had the money.

"It didn't matter how much money I left home with, I never came back with money. There was no limit."

John is one of many who have found crack on Cape Girardeau's south side. The police know of the drug's presence in the mostly black area, and so do the residents.

"You can just drive by any given corner over here and see a lot of drug contact is made there," said JoAnna McCauley, pastor at the south side church House of Prayer.

The street was where John made his drug contacts. After his initial addiction in St. Louis, he went into treatment for a few months, then moved to Cape Girardeau to distance himself from the drug culture he knew. But it wasn't long before his cravings took him to the south side, where he made contact on Good Hope Street.

"I pulled up and introduced myself, I used the lingo and told them what was going on and what I wanted, and I soon found myself introduced to most of the people on crack in the city," John recalled.

Sometimes John would buy his crack on the street, sometimes he would go to a friendly house, where his host would bring in street dealers. The street dealers he normally bought the drug from were between 19 and 25, but some were as young as 15, said John.

Most weren't crack users; they smoked marijuana and drank. They had to distance themselves from the addicts.

"There has to be a separation," John said. "That gives them the edge over an addict. They treat them like scum."

Over the years, John gained a reputation as a "spender," someone who was always willing to buy, and who often had the money.

Some areas of the south side, like South Hanover Street, are places with a large amount of documented drug activity.

Roy Rahn, a K-9 officer with the Cape Girardeau Police Department, said that before last summer, huge crowds congregated on South Hanover Street and would quickly disperse at the sight of police cruisers. Left in their wake would be corner bags with "rocked up" (crack) or powdered cocaine, marijuana and paraphernalia -- proof of a drug economy embedded in the south side.

At some point, one of the people in those crowds might have been John. He was at the bottom of a destructive chain, a crack addict preyed upon by dealers who still lurk in the south side. He gave the dealers what they wanted -- easy, quick cash -- and they gave him the substance that was slowly killing him and destroying all his relationships.

Crack isn't new to Cape Girardeau or Southeast Missouri. But as the meth threat starts to lose momentum due to restriction on substances needed to produce it, police are once again concentrating on a thriving crack and cocaine market.

The focus was clearly stated over the summer when a series of buys led to more than a dozen busts for sales of crack cocaine on South Hanover Street. At the time of the busts, there was a bustling "open-air market" for crack on the south side. The market would supply people from other towns, like Sikeston, and serve as a spot for outsiders to sell from.

Sales have gone more behind closed doors, but dealers and users are still there.

Now, "it's nothing like it was early this summer on Hanover Street, when there were wall-to-wall street dealers," said Cape Girardeau police detective Bill Bohnert, a narcotics investigator.

Many of those dealers caught in the Hanover buys were small-time, selling $20 to $40 worth of crack at a time, standard sizes for personal use. These are the dealers John most commonly encountered. He would spend $40 to $50, which would last him about one hour, and go back for more.

But the small-timers aren't the only dealers in Cape Girardeau.

The city is also home to larger dealers, the kind who sell gram upon gram of cocaine, and to smaller midlevel dealers, many of whom supply the street dealers. Many times the bigger dealers will use teenagers to peddle the drugs because the youths won't have to face prison time, said Bohnert.

John has dealt with these big players, too. Each time was a scary experience, but his addiction was always strong enough to override the fear.

There were times when he'd be standing on a dark road, money visibly displayed in hand, headlights shining on him, with men stepping out of a car brandishing pistols. Other times, he would be taken to a house where a big player was.

"They would even threaten you or hurt you," John said. "Whoever brought you there, if it wasn't a comfortable situation, you were in trouble."

The big players are paranoid because they face the possibility of big time in prison. There is a divide between federal sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, outlined by the U.S. Congress. A crack dealer will get a minimum five years in prison for just 5 grams of the drug, but a powder dealer needs to possess 500 grams for sale to get the same sentence.

Because crack is a largely black problem, those sentences are seen by many as racially discriminatory. Out of the felony cocaine cases -- possession and distribution -- prosecuted in Cape Girardeau County in 2004, 49 defendants were black and 13 were white. For powder cocaine, the numbers were 18 black and seven white. Seven were Hispanic.

In sharp contrast is methamphetamine, with 47 prosecutions of whites and none for blacks.

Larry Ferrell, a federal prosecutor working in Cape Girardeau, said out of his prosecutions, 95 percent of crack cases involve black defendants (sometimes with entire families making up a ring), while 95 percent of meth cases involve whites.

But Ferrell said sentencing is similar for crack and meth, with sentences within months of each other for comparable offenses.

Crack isn't just a Cape Girardeau problem. Ferrell said he sees more cases out of Scott County, where dealers concentrate in Sikeston, than in Cape Girardeau County.

Sgt. Kevin Glaser, administrator of the SEMO Drug Task Force, said cocaine and crack are prevalent throughout Southeast Missouri, with low prices reflecting plenty of supply.

In 2004, Glaser's organization made purchases of 130.92 grams of crack cocaine in Southeast Missouri and seized 563.55 grams. The task force's arrests led to 25 charges for crack possession -- the third most for any drug behind marijuana and meth and far above the five for powder cocaine. Task force arrests led to 50 charges for the sale and manufacture of crack, second only behind the 55 charges for attempts to manufacture meth.

Much of the crack activity, Glaser said, is centered in public housing areas.

McCauley, the pastor, sees hopelessness as the root of the crack problem. She thinks the prevalence of public assistance, like housing and welfare payments, have taken the dreams and motivations from many black households. Public assistance has been given to people, leaving them nothing to work for and taking away their feelings of power.

And the cycle is perpetuated by single mothers who are addicts, forcing their children to fend for themselves on the streets, McCauley said.

For John it wasn't a matter of poverty. He had a good job and made plenty of money. He even owned his own business in St. Louis before getting hooked.

But the effect was the same. John ruined his relationships with friends and family, taking advantage of those closest to him first. Now he's lost a closeness with his teen children he may not get back.

"They have detached to a point," John said. "It's like a person with some type of vomiting disease -- you learn to keep at a safe distance so you don't get anything on you."

John has a long road ahead. Right now he's in treatment, trying to overcome his addiction. He had been clean 17 months before September came around. But now he says he's tired of the consequences of his addiction and seeing his family lose confidence. Now he says he really wants to change, and realizes that is the one precondition for recovery.

"It works if you work it," John said.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


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