Rock cocaine, once considered a low-income high, has moved out of the Los Angeles ghettos and into the South Bay, where law enforcement and drug treatment officials say its use has reached epidemic proportions.
Police reports and treatment center admissions indicate that increasing numbers of people from Playa del Rey to Palos Verdes and just about everywhere in between are smoking rock cocaine, a highly concentrated, extremely addictive pellet form of the drug that usually is smoked in glass pipes, not snorted through the nostrils.
Almost 75% of all narcotics arrests in the South Bay today involve the drug, police say. A year ago, they say, it rarely surfaced in suburban communities.
And along with the drug's increased use have come accessory problems: prostitution, burglary, broken families and ruined lives.
Rock cocaine use cuts across race, social and economic strata like no other drug before it, officials say. Police and drug counselors tell of teen-agers becoming prostitutes to buy the drug, and of businessmen burglarizing homes and cars to get money for a quick fix.
Horror stories about the drug spreading to the middle class are starting to appear in Newsweek and other national magazines. The National Cocaine Hotline says rock cocaine is widely used in 17 American cities, though nowhere is it more prevalent than in Los Angeles County, where it first surfaced more than five years ago.
Local law enforcement officials say that in nearly every city in the South Bay, the use and sale of rock cocaine has doubled in the past year.
In Inglewood, for example, almost 90% of all drug arrests are rock-cocaine related, police officials said. Inglewood police have seized three times as much cocaine during the first six months of this year as they did during the same period last year.
In El Segundo, police say several industrial and aerospace firms have hired private investigators to help ferret out drug users, and the Police Department this year started offering classes to teach businesses how to identify the signs of on-the-job drug abuse.
In Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach, sale of the drug appears to be minimal, but use is on the rise, police said. Manhattan Beach police have seen a 50% jump in the number of bad checks passed in the city--more than half of them written by people who later say they have cocaine problems.
According to Hermosa Beach Detective Patrick Waters, "Hermosa has gotten a reputation as a place to buy and smoke the drug in the last year.
"We don't have a visible problem with dealers selling drugs on the street, but this new drug could create some new problems. We don't see it, but our informants tell police that coke, particularly rock cocaine, is a growing problem here in the city."
Police and school officials throughout the South Bay are grappling with a growing number of dealers who seem to have an endless supply of cocaine. Federal officials cite an estimated 500% increase in the amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States in the past two years, some of it from nearby Mexico.
"A lot of the small-time marijuana dealers that used to smuggle their stuff in from Mexico are switching over to selling cocaine because it so much more profitable," said Sgt. Dale Pierce of the Gardena Police Department's special investigations division.
Officials from the National Cocaine Hotline estimate that 5,000 people a day will try rock cocaine for the first time, and half of those will become addicted. The hot line (1-800-COCAINE) offers help to users and others whose lives are affected by the drug.
In one way or another, rock cocaine is going to touch everyone's life, said Dr. Gerald Rozansky, director of the Inglewood-based Centinela Hospital Lifestarts program for treating chemical dependency.
"People seem to think that rock cocaine abuse is limited to the slums--not so," Rozansky said. "Chances are some of your neighbors and co-workers are getting high on this stuff. And whether it ruins a friend's or loved one's life, or causes an addict to steal your belongings for rock money, it's going to reach out and touch all of us like a plague."
Called Rock Crack, Jumbo
Rock cocaine, which was first observed in South-Central Los Angeles around 1981, is made by heating a mixture of powdered cocaine, baking soda and water and then pouring the concoction into molds for drying. The crystals are then broken into gravel-sized chips known as rock crack or jumbo.
At $15 to $25 a pebble, which is enough for one or two highs, rock cocaine provides a powerful-yet-affordable high that has held a wrenching grip on low-income neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.