NEW YORK — This is the long hot summer of "crack" in New York City.
The highly purified and rapidly addictive form of cocaine is so prevalent that law enforcement officials say they are almost powerless to stop its spread.
Courts are jammed. Drug treatment centers are filled to capacity. Addicts seeking help must often wait weeks or months to enter rehabilitation programs. Some drug counselors report that children as young as 10 years old are using the drug, and young teen-agers are dealers.
Prosecutors agree about the scope of the epidemic.
"We've got a serious drug problem here, and it's getting more serious day by day," said Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau. "We cannot cope with the level of drugs that is coming into the city at this time.
"Our citizens are angry and frustrated by the seeming inability of local law enforcement officials to control narcotics trafficking. I share these emotions, although for different reasons. Once I thought we were treading water; now I feel we are drowning."
"Drug enforcement is one of the most frustrating jobs in the world," lamented Sterling Johnson Jr., the city's special narcotics prosecutor, who calls the crack crisis "the most serious problem in New York City today."
"It's circle-the-wagons time," Johnson added.
Crack has become a prime political issue for candidates seeking office at all levels of government. No politician wants to be perceived as the slightest bit soft on crack.
To dramatize the situation, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and U.S. Atty. Rudolph Giuliani donned disguises to buy crack on the streets. But, like some other tourists in drug land, they were taken in; laboratory analysis later showed that some of the crack they purchased was phony.
In May, the New York Police Department formed a special squad of 110 experienced narcotics officers to fight crack. Last month, Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward announced that the squad would be expanded by 100 more policemen. But he admitted: "We have a long way to go."
The crack squad has made more than 700 arrests and has seized 4,178 vials of purified cocaine. But drug marketplaces continue to flourish and police say they are frustrated because most crack arrests result in misdemeanor charges. Even when many vials of crack are confiscated, each may contain only a tiny amount of the highly-purified cocaine. Thus the total weight of the drug adds up only to enough to constitute a misdemeanor.
To make matters worse, only six judges are available to try 107,000 cases of all types a year in criminal court. In Manhattan, only one out of every 200 crack misdemeanor cases reaches trial. Drug sellers routinely request a jury trial, knowing the odds are bleak for prosecutors. It is the perfect position to plea-bargain, and the result is that sellers often beat policemen back to street corners.
'Drugs . . . Everywhere'
"Once confined to the city's poorest neighborhoods, drugs are now everywhere," said Morgenthau. "No neighborhood or individual is immune. The dealers can be found in the city's business districts and even in the parks of elite neighborhoods."
Crack--crystallized cocaine that is cut into tiny pieces called "rock"--can be produced for enormous profits using ingredients found in any kitchen. The tiny crack crystals, which are smoked, are sold in vials originally designed to hold computer chips. Vials sell for $4 to $20 on the street. Because crack's high lasts only 20 minutes and is followed by intense depression, many users make multiple purchases in an effort to prolong the euphoria.
The economics of drug dealing has produced entrepreneurs in all sections of the city. Cocaine costing $1,200 can yield crack worth $4,000 at street prices.
"They chip it off like a piece of soap. We have a few spots where there are brand names (for the drug)," said Johnson, the special prosecutor, "but it isn't necessary. It sells itself. Merchandising is not a problem.
'A Cottage Industry'
"A crack house is any place where you get some coke, some ammonia or baking soda and a skillet and a blender. It is a cottage industry--mom and pop. There is not a neighborhood in New York City that does not have a crack house. There are more crack stops than bus stops and more crack houses than community houses in New York."
Police have even arrested 16-year-old dealers with chauffeur-driven new BMWs. The teen-age drug sellers were too young to drive but old enough to deal.
"We don't see any end in sight," said Lt. Joseph E. Lisi, an eight-year veteran of the police narcotics squad. "When you arrest someone, there are more than a handful of people waiting to take his place."
The tragedy is particularly stark for those attempting to convince youngsters that crack can be deadly.