Portland’s crack bazaar never closes

From the Oregonian, September 12, 1989

At first, Mary thought she saw a small child standing next to the man in the doorway of her North Portland apartment where she sold crack cocaine.

That got her attention. Customers showed up at all hours to buy crack, but they seldom appeared at 3 a.m. with a kid.

Then she realized it wasn’t a child. It was a man lying on the ground, aiming a sawed-off shotgun at her.

“Give me all your dope and all your money,” the gunman barked at her.

Mary, who started as a crack dealer the previous month, had known she might be robbed. She had prepared for it by carrying only a small amount of drugs and money and hiding the rest in the apartment.

Now her planning came in handy. She handed over a wad of bills that totaled only $25 and threw five rocks of crack on the floor.

The thieves hurriedly grabbed the cash, scooped up three rocks of crack and raced off into the August night. They left behind nearly $2,000 worth of hidden crack that Mary’s supplier had delivered only a short time earlier.

Mary was unharmed and went back to what she was doing when the robbers knocked on her door: She smoked more crack.

Three years after that 1986 robbery, Mary is still smoking crack. So are thousands of others. Crack use has exploded to become the Portland area’s most visible drug problem. Some police and drug treatment officials believe crack is used even more widely than powdered cocaine, which is snorted through the nose or mixed with water and injected.

The main marketplace for crack is an estimated 150 drug houses and apartments in North and Northeast Portland.

Police estimate there are at least 750 drug houses in Portland and that three of every four sell cocaine in one form or another. But none attracts the large volume of round-the-clock customers who stream into the crack houses of North and Northeast Portland.

Mary, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be published, said she doesn’t sell crack anymore. But in her inner-North Portland neighborhood, she is surrounded by people who do.

“Probably the farthest you have to go is three blocks to find a rock house,” said Mary, 31.

In her corner of Albina, Mary counts 20 houses and apartments where dealers sell crack in pea-size pieces called rocks. Brash hawkers offer her the drug as she walks down the street at midday.

Cheap and ready to use, crack is the fast food of drugs. Every rock yields several breaths of smoke, which brings a surge of pleasure. The drug is highly addictive, so people use a lot of it in a short time.

This year, the price of the cheapest rocks has fallen from $10 to just $5 each in Portland. Police say that is a sign of the growing competition among crack dealers in a saturated market.

At the same time, the number of cocaine overdoses in Oregon is skyrocketing. More than 50 people have died from the drug since January 1988, compared with fewer than 20 cocaine deaths in the previous two years.

Dr. Larry V. Lewman, state medical examiner, attributes the surge to the spread of crack. Deaths from drug overdoses are occurring at a record pace this year, and most of them are in the Portland area.

For Mary, crack is the latest stop on a long road of drug abuse. She is a thin but healthy-looking woman with bright eyes and smooth skin. There is a weariness in her sigh, but she speaks politely, apologizing before using an obscenity.

Mary has worked as a dishwasher, security guard and gas station attendant, but now she’s unemployed. Her husband is long gone, in a prison somewhere. She is unable to care properly for her young son, so he lives with her mother. She is, in her own words, a loner.

“When you do drugs, you have no friends,” she said.

Like many others, Mary’s life of drug abuse started with alcohol. The first time she got drunk was as a teen-ager in May 1976, when she drank from beer kegs at Neil Goldschmidt‘s victory party after he was re-elected Portland’s mayor.

She graduated from Lincoln High School a few weeks later and eventually took some Portland Community College courses. But she soon quit. By 1978, she was injecting herself daily with methylphenidate — a stimulant commonly known by the brand name Ritalin and often used to treat attention disorders in children. For three years, she worked as a prostitute to support her habit. She quit using the drug on her own in 1982.

But she used other drugs — marijuana, barbiturates, LSD, heroin and PCP, not to mention alcohol.

“I was always the inquisitive type,” Mary said. “I always tried something once. Then, if it gets out of hand, it’s time to give it up. But of all the things I’ve done, rock cocaine is about the worst.”

Mary first smoked cocaine in the late 1970s, but she smoked it only occasionally until she moved back into her old neighborhood in mid-1986. There, crack was all around her, and she began using it frequently. For a short time, she helped a man run a crack house. Then she started working for a drug supplier, supporting her crack use by selling large $25 rocks out of the apartment where she was robbed.

The crack was delivered to her apartment in a sandwich bag filled with $2,000 worth of rocks, each packaged inside its own plastic bag. Customers bought anywhere from $25 to $500 worth of crack at a time, and she sold as much as $4,000 worth a day.

Mary worked 12 hours a day selling crack, and the supplier hired someone else to work the other 12 hours. She earned $200 a day, but spent most of it on her own crack.

In a twinge of conscience, Mary stopped her crack sales for half an hour each afternoon because she said she was worried about the impact on children who passed by her apartment on their way home from school. That lasted two weeks, until her supplier found out and ordered an end to the sales breaks.

In late 1986, police raided her apartment, ending her crack-selling career.

Though she said she doesn’t sell the drug anymore, she is still a customer at many crack houses. Some houses sell crack and allow the customers to smoke the drug inside, she said, while others require the buyers to leave as soon as they make their purchase.

Most “smokehouses” where crack is used are a mess, Mary said. Dishes and jar lids are used as ashtrays. Matches, cigarette butts, wine bottles and beer cans are strewn about. The windows are covered by curtains, blankets or anything else that will keep the rest of the world out.

Pop cans, beer bottles and miniature liquor bottles are fashioned into pipes for smoking the drug.

“They use antennas when they get desperate,” Mary said, explaining that smokers who don’t have pipes with them sometimes break radio antennas off cars and draw the crack smoke through the hollow middle.

Regardless of the way it is smoked, crack often leaves its users paranoid, or “tweaking.” Some people hide in closets, afraid of being seen or caught or attacked. Some inspect rooms and doorways to make sure no one is lurking there.

And the drug often makes its users combative and unpredictable.

“Some people, mainly men, think they’re God,” Mary said. “They get really rowdy, loud. They know it all. And some people get violent.”

Crack users who need emergency medical help are “abusive as hell in the emergency room,” said Dr. Donald D. Trunkey, who heads Oregon Health Sciences University’s surgery department. “Their behavior is impulsive and very violent. I have the greatest respect for a crack addict in the emergency room because I don’t trust them as far as I can spit. They would kill you in a second and have absolutely no guilt.”

In any house or apartment where crack is sold, guns are common. The entrance often is flanked by youths paid to watch for police.

In preparation for a police raid, some crack sellers leave a pan of grease cooking on the stove, Mary said. If police suddenly burst into the house, the rocks of cocaine can be pitched into the grease and melted.

Mary said crack house customers range in age from teen-agers to gray-haired adults in their 60s. Most are black, but many are white.

Some go straight from work to the crack houses, wearing suits and ties. Mary has seen musicians, beauticians, bus drivers, telephone workers, even pregnant women, all buying crack.

While Mary worked as a security guard, she wore her uniform when she bought crack at the Kerby Square Apartments after work. City officials shut down the North Portland apartment complex in 1987 after repeated complaints of gang and drug activity.

The drug houses have spawned a new kind of economy. Cash is common, but Mary said some buyers use food stamps, paying $2 in food stamps for every dollar’s worth of drug. In that exchange, a “dime rock” that sells for $10 in cash can be purchased with $20 worth of food stamps.

The crack business is particularly brisk at the first of each month when paychecks, welfare checks and food stamps are distributed, Mary said.

Sometimes the customers trade televisions, videocassette recorders, stereo equipment, clothes, guns or stolen credit cards for crack.

Mary also said it was common for women in crack houses to offer sex in exchange for crack or for money that they then use for buying crack.

“People will do anything to get rocks,” she said.

Gunfire in the streets is common late at night, as are smokers roaming loudly from drug house to drug house. Addicts often turn to robbery and burglary to pay for the drug.

“There’s a rise in violence, there’s a rise in assaults, there’s a rise in thefts and there’s a rise in burglaries in an area where a crack house opens up,” said Officer Derrick Foxworth of the Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Enforcement Team.

Foxworth says the area hardest hit by crack houses lies between Interstate 5 and Northeast 15th Avenue, and between Killingsworth Street and Broadway. That is the area where Mary was born and raised.

The crack-selling operations, most of them located in rental houses or apartments, move as often as every three weeks to avoid police detection. But the relief for the neighborhood is limited: They often move only a few blocks away.

The city’s crack explosion began in late 1985 when two violent Los Angeles-based gangs, the Bloods and Crips, moved to Portland to sell the drug.

After five people died in Portland gang shootings last year, law enforcement officials had feared this summer would bring even more violence. Instead, there have been no fatal gang shootings here so far this year.

Police estimate there are now 1,100 Bloods and Crips in the city — most of them from Portland instead of Los Angeles. Foxworth said most of the Southern California gang members who once controlled many of the city’s crack operations left Portland or were imprisoned.

“I’m reluctant to say they’re eradicated,” said Michael J. Brown, a special assistant U.S. attorney who prosecutes gang cases. “But by all accounts, the Los Angeles gang presence, if not eliminated, has been diminished to where we don’t have the major players out here right now.”

Foxworth estimates that gang members and their friends run half of the crack houses in North and Northeast Portland.

“What you have now is a bunch of little operators running the houses, but they’re gang-affiliated,” Foxworth said.

A variety of local drug dealers run the other crack houses, and it’s common for them to run two or three at the same time, Foxworth said. He said the total number of crack houses has remained fairly steady in the past year.

Foxworth also said that women are becoming more involved in selling and delivering crack, just as Mary did in 1986.

And, like Mary, more women crack users are having trouble caring for their children, he said.

“We have a lot more children being taken care of by relatives because they realize what’s happening and they don’t want the kids around it,” he said. “Or the kids are not being taken care of at all and they end up on the streets and joining gangs.”

Mary says she is trying to cut down on her use of crack. She used to go days without a meal, a bath or a change of her clothes. She smoked crack instead.

Now, she eats regularly while maintaining her crack habit, a condition that she describes as “halfway together.”

She estimated that she only smokes crack once or twice a week, although a recent binge took her to five crack houses in 15 hours.

Mary is determined to quit on her own, though treatment specialists say it is extremely difficult to stop drug abuse without the help of friends, relatives or other supporters. Mary tried drug treatment programs before without success, she said.

In mid-1987, she went through an outpatient drug treatment program. She lived in a Burnside Projects hotel that supposedly was drug-free, but she continued to smoke crack. She left the hotel last year after she found the body of a man who died in his room of a tar heroin overdose.

Mary still rejects any suggestion that she is a drug addict.

This summer, she moved out of her old neighborhood into another section of North Portland in an effort to get away from crack.

She talks of moving away to another city with her son, believing that she could quit crack if she could go someplace where she didn’t know anyone and she didn’t know how to find crack.

But that dream is far off. She has no job, no money. She is still smoking crack. And her son is still living with her mother. She prefers it that way, she said, since her life has “kind of gone to hell with drugs.”

“Cocaine has done its job on me.”