Overdose: cocaine and crime in Portland

From the Oregonian, September 10, 1989

Overdose: cocaine and crime in Portland – the first of twelve parts
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Judy Charlton sat on the front porch of her Northeast Portland home one evening a few weeks ago to watch the people who make up the fabric of her neighborhood: the kids, the parents and the drug addicts.

Overdose: cocaine and crime in Portland

Overdose: cocaine and crime in Portland

While children played catch, roller-skated or chased each other up and down the street, the addicts quietly walked among them.

These addicts — men and women, black and white, young and old — had come to the 4000 block of Northeast 13th Avenue to buy small amounts of cocaine. They arrived in cars and on foot. One pedaled a bicycle. Another used a skateboard. But whatever it took, they got there.

And with each transaction they chipped away at the foundation of a proud neighborhood that not too many years ago was something more than a festering sore in a city that likes to boast about livability.

None was embarrassed, ashamed or afraid. On some days, as many as 200 people make their way to the nondescript drug house in the middle of the block. Some even nodded, in a friendly sort of way, to a stony-faced Charlton.

The Charltons bought their home four years ago for $25,000. Since then, they’ve spent money and sweat remodeling the place to make it comfortable for their two children, ages 8 and 4.

Their racially diverse neighborhood, as 32-year-old Rick Charlton points out, was never the fanciest in the city. No one’s rich there. It’s strictly low and moderate income. But appearances aside, Charlton said, the biggest problems until two years ago were domestic fights and an occasional burglary.

Then everything changed.

The drug and gang problem, which had been largely confined to areas west of Northeast Eighth Avenue, moved east, swallowing up chunks of land as far away as Northeast 15th Avenue.

Crime, particularly burglary, has increased. And now the sound of gunfire is common. Needles and other drug paraphernalia litter the street.

Prostitutes, who used to be infrequent visitors to the neighborhood, are more blatant. But they’re not just selling sex. They’re serving as lookouts, keeping an eye out for police and directing customers to drug houses.

Longtime residents panicked and moved away. They took with them their decency, stability and commitment, the bedrock of any neighborhood. The legacy: three vacant homes and at least two known drug houses on just two blocks.

Last fall the Charltons decided they, too, would throw in the towel and put their house on the market for $25,000. They forgot about the time and money they had spent improving their home. They just wanted out.

Prospective buyers backed off, however, whenever real estate agents gave them the address. In nine months not one person even bothered to look at the house.

“If I could get out, and even lose a couple of thousand dollars, I’d sign the papers tonight,” said Rick Charlton, a salesman for a sawmill company. “But the only way to get out is to walk away and let the bank take the house.”

The Charltons thought they escaped drugs and gangs four years ago when they moved to Portland from Los Angeles, the city where this country’s recent gang problems originated.

“Our neighborhood there changed just the way this one has,” said 30-year-old Judy Charlton. “There were gangs and drugs and violence. We moved up here because LA was no longer a place to raise kids.

“But the other night I was lying in bed, and I told my husband that the only difference now between Portland and LA is that LA police use helicopters to look for gangs, and the searchlights shine in your bedroom,” she said. “They don’t use helicopters in Portland.”

The Charltons don’t know who to blame for what has happened to their neighborhood.

“It goes beyond what any one politician or leader did or didn’t do,” Rick Charlton said. “The politicians tell us to hang in there, they say things will change in a couple of years. But we can’t wait that long.”

For now, the Charltons, and their neighbors, are working the system. They filed more than 45 police complaints about the two drug houses.

And a few months ago residents teamed up with police and the neighborhood association to close a third drug house. They put pressure on the owner of the rental, and he agreed to evict the drug-selling tenants.

“People in Portland better wake up,” Rick Charlton said. “If they don’t, they’re going to find themselves with a drug house in their neighborhood. This isn’t just a problem that’s in Northeast Portland. It’s everywhere.”

Charlton is not exaggerating. Portland is awash in drugs, particularly cocaine, which, just behind alcohol and marijuana, is one of the most widely used harmful drugs in the Portland area.

Once called the champagne of drugs because of its high price and jet-set image, the cocaine derivative crack is cheaper than the price of a movie ticket.

An estimated one in 10 Portland area residents has used some form of cocaine more than once, according to Dr. Jerry Larsen, medical director for Portland’s Comprehensive Options for Drug Abusers, the largest drug-treatment program in the state.

Studies show that most cocaine users range in age from their late teens to late 30s. In that group, as many as one in five people in the Portland area uses cocaine once a month or more, said Logan C. Baldwin of St. Vincent Hospital *and Medical Center.

Five years ago, little crack was found in Portland. Now, it’s the favorite drug in many neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland.

Some treatment specialists believe crack, smoked in small “rocks” that sell for as little as $5 each, has become the most widely used form of cocaine in the Portland area. Others say powdered cocaine that is snorted or mixed with water and injected is more popular than crack.

Much of the crack is sold by gun-toting gang members who have set up high-volume drug houses in peaceful neighborhoods. The violent dealers and unpredictable users take over neighborhoods from residents whose property values sink and whose family safety is jeopardized.

Intensely addictive, crack hooks users quickly and completely. It hits the brain in just seconds, producing an intense high that is over in five minutes. An unpleasant crash follows, marked by depression and a hunger for more cocaine.

Despite earlier claims that crack addicts couldn’t be treated, researchers are finding that usual treatment methods can be effective. They say the crack user’s environment — usually in poor inner cities lacking education, job opportunities and supportive friends and relatives — may be as important in treatment difficulties as the drug’s physiological effects.

About 150 drug houses in North and Northeast Portland are the prime crack outlets. But drug houses are not the only marketplace for cocaine. Street dealers openly peddle cocaine and other drugs in city parks on both sides of the river, including one that Police Chief Richard D. Walker can see from his 15th floor office in the Portland Police Bureau headquarters just a block away.

Cocaine can be purchased from patrons in virtually every large bar, nightclub or restaurant in the metropolitan area. In some establishments, it’s almost as easy as ordering a drink.

Other drugs also are easy to get in Portland. Mexican tar heroin is readily available from street-corner dealers in Old Town. The city has earned itself a national reputation as a major supplier of methamphetamines, which are produced in clandestine labs throughout the metropolitan area. And Oregon is known for growing some of the world’s best marijuana.

Heroin and meth addicts typically come from well-defined, relatively small and isolated segments of the community: street people, prostitutes and criminals. But cocaine users come from all walks of life.

They live in Albina and Alameda, in Portland Heights and in Errol Heights. They are employed as cops, clerks, doctors, lawyers and journalists. They are kids not old enough to get a driver’s license and adults who worry about the mortgage.

They all share one thing: They can’t stay away from cocaine.

Fourteen years ago, a task force led by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller said that cocaine was not physically addictive. But recent research has shown that crack is one of the most addictive drugs known, so addictive that it cannot be used as a recreational drug.

Portland’s addicts know that.

Three years ago there were just five Cocaine Anonymous groups meeting weekly in the Portland area. Now, there are 24 such groups, at least one meeting daily.

Drugs like cocaine have changed the way all Portland residents, not just addicts, live their lives.

Portland’s crime rate is among the fifth-highest in the country, and police and prosecutors estimate that three-fourths of crime is related to or motivated by drugs. But the issue goes beyond statistics. During the 1980s, Portlanders’ perception of their city changed, much of it because of drugs and crime.

Neighborhood activists say residents fear that they and police are losing control over areas where families live under virtual siege because of what drugs are doing to their neighborhoods.

Residents worry that Portland is no longer the small, safe, livable city it once was. They wonder if their children’s schools are safe, or if they’ll be mugged if they go downtown to a theater.

And there’s a growing fear that the people with the power to effect change are not able to cope with the problem.

As the crime problem became more acute, many of the city’s leaders were distracted, fighting internal battles that hampered their ability to provide leadership when it was needed most.

Mayor Bud Clark didn’t use the power of his office to address the problems in the neighborhoods hardest hit by drug violence. Leaders in North and Northeast Portland and even the mayor’s friends tried for more than a year to convince his office that the city had a serious gang and drug problem. The first public response from City Hall did not come until last year.

“Until the day I die, I will believe that had this happened in the richer part of town, that would not have been the response,” said Ron Herndon, who has emerged as a leading voice on crime issues in the North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods.

Internal strife spawned a tug-of-war between the mayor’s office and the Police Bureau. The disputes became so bad that state and federal law enforcement agencies began to look past those two institutions to solve the city’s problems.

Since 1980, there have been five police chiefs, two interim chiefs and several deputy chiefs running the Police Bureau. The frequent management changes have left a bureau that no longer appears to know what is expected of it.

No one in the bureau has a plan to effectively deal with crime and drugs during the next few years, let alone the next 12 months.

Five months ago, The Oregonian assembled a team of 10 staff members to examine Portland’s cocaine problem and the toll it has taken on the city and its citizens. The team found:

*Total property crime losses last year amounted to $142 for each resident.

*Last year’s dollar loss — based on worker productivity, crime and decreases in property values attributed to gangs and drugs — reached $200 million in Multnomah County.

*The values on more than 700 square blocks in inner-city neighborhoods fell by as much as 17 percent last year. Realtors and residents blamed drug-related activity.

*The age at which youngsters in Portland and the rest of the state first try drugs and alcohol continues to decline.

*Students can make contacts to buy drugs in every Portland-area public middle school and high school.

*Drug addicts without money or health insurance may have to wait weeks or months to get drug treatment.

*The percentage of Oregonians failing pre-employment drug tests exceeds the national average.

*Most drug users are not hard-core addicts, but are employed and managing to carry on their lives.

Chuck Karl, a Portland Police Bureau captain who runs the Regional Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force, is not known for hyperbole. Yet he admits that he is worried about Portland’s future.

“Our community has to mobilize to kill the demand for drugs,” he said. “Law enforcement has been depended on too much to deal with drugs. The community, and by that I mean the churches, the businesses, the schools and the neighborhoods, have to do their part.

“In cities like New York, where they’ve been dealing with this problem for a lot longer, there’s a tendency for the citizens to give up,” he said. “I’m worried that’s what’s happening in Portland.

“My fear is that Portland has reached a crossroads,” he said. “The time to do something, as a community, as a city, is now. If we don’t, we can count on it only getting worse each day.”

The easiest way to understand what’s happened to Portland is to imagine that a large map of the western United States is spread out across a kitchen table.

Placed at the southern end of California, and representing cocaine, is a full glass of milk. Knock that glass over and the milk washes over all of Los Angeles. And rivulets run to Portland.

Portland’s cocaine problems are acute because in the early 1980s, drug rings began smuggling cocaine through California as well as through Florida, a longtime port of entry.

Now Los Angeles, like Miami, has become one of the nation’s largest hubs for cocaine. An estimated 40 percent of this country’s cocaine travels through Los Angeles before being shipped to dealers scattered in nearly every state, according to federal narcotics officials.

Authorities believe they only stopped 10 percent of all the cocaine smuggled into Los Angeles last year. Yet they still seized 20 tons, enough to put a 3.3-pound bag on every seat in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. And each bag will provide between 4,000 and 7,500 hits of cocaine.

Cocaine flows north to Portland along Interstate 5 each day. Since January, Oregon State Police patrolling the highways have seized more than 170 pounds of cocaine worth more than $1.5 million — most of it on I-5.

“I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said state police Capt. Jim Stevenson of the Patrol Division.

Larry McKinney, the special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Portland office, agrees.

“These days, the physical distance that separates us from the border doesn’t do much to stop the drugs,” he said. “Once across the border, they come to Portland almost as easily as they come to Los Angeles. Portland has no special insulation from these guys anymore.”

Another contributing factor to the city’s cocaine problem has been the growth of the Crips and Bloods, street gangs that formed in Los Angeles and entered the crack business.

About four years ago, gang members began moving to Portland to find new markets. Authorities believe that most of the top Los Angeles gang members have been driven from the city, but local members now control most of Portland’s crack trade. The gang members have been involved in murders and drive-by shootings.

Primarily because of those two events — Los Angeles becoming a hub city, and the growth of gangs involved in the crack business — Portland’s cocaine market is booming.

As law enforcement agencies put greater emphasis on drug cases, Portland-area jails burst. In Portland last year, almost two of three persons arrested on drug charges were merely given citations to appear in court at a later date.

Neither state prisons, jail nor probation programs offer enough drug treatment. The chances of getting drug treatment, counseling or drug education in the prison system are less than one in 10. Most jails offer no treatment.

On many fronts, the war on drugs is being lost.

Norma Jaeger, alcohol and drug coordinator for the Multnomah County Department of Human Services, doesn’t even like the war metaphor.

“The last war this country was in was the Vietnam War, and if people will remember, we didn’t win. We gave up,” she said. “And how do you declare war on something that’s so insidious, so interwoven? War works when there is a clear enemy.

“But what do you do when the drug dealer is a Gresham High School student? Is that who you want to declare war on? It’s a flashy metaphor, but other than shooting down drug smugglers’ airplanes, it really isn’t helpful.”

The story of cocaine is a story about victims. People such as:

Robert D. Clary, an 18-year veteran with the Portland Police Bureau. While working as an undercover drug officer in 1976, Clary first snorted cocaine to keep his cover while investigating a California outlaw biker. Clary became hooked, and didn’t stop until late 1987.

The toll: Clary, who had attained the rank of sergeant and had earned seven commendations during his career, was fired.

Tom, a 14-year-old boy who fell in love with cocaine when he turned 13. He injected cocaine and soon was hooked. To support himself he began selling drugs to other kids.

The toll: Tom dropped out of school to enter drug treatment. In May, he checked himself into a long-term residential treatment center for adolescents near San Diego. He will live there for eight months.

David Lawrence “Larry” Olstad, a former Portland attorney who was arrested by federal drug agents last year in his downtown office. The charge: distributing and conspiring to deliver cocaine.

Olstad had been a recreational cocaine user for several years, but lost control of his life in 1987 when he started smoking cocaine.

The toll: suspension of his license as a lawyer, separation from his wife and two teen-age daughters, forfeiture of his Irvington home to the bank, and a prison sentence.

Frank, a family man and city of Portland utility worker who became addicted to crack. On payday, he would leave work and stop at home only long enough to shower. Then he would head to a Northeast Portland drug house to buy his fix.

The toll: Frank spent as much as $300 a night on crack before he finally went into drug treatment.

Kamira, a baby who tested positive for cocaine one day after she was born.

State officials say that during the first five months of this year, the births of drug-affected babies were running about 20 percent higher than last year.

The toll: Long-range consequences that could include mental retardation and stunted coordination.

Neither Judy nor Rick Charlton has ever used cocaine. Yet cocaine has infected their lives.

In mid-August, after working with the neighborhood association and authorities, police arrested the man suspected of running the drug house in the middle of their block.

Two weeks later, when it became clear the drug house would not reopen, the Charltons organized a neighborhood party to celebrate. About 25 neighbors gathered in the Charltons’ back yard to eat cake and congratulate each other.

Mike Linhares, a Portland Police Bureau lieutenant who had worked closely with the neighborhood, said he believed the men who ran the drug house had opened another one two blocks away. He urged continued vigilance.

“One victory on one block in the city doesn’t mean a lot by itself,” he said. “But down the road they get rid of another drug house and it becomes a two-block victory. Then four blocks, and pretty soon you have a neighborhood.”

After the cake had been cut, helium-filled balloons were handed out, and Rick Charlton climbed on his deck to make a speech.

“We know that in the scheme of things not a whole lot has been accomplished,” he said. “There are still drug houses and problems. But let’s make a toast to ourselves.

“Maybe some other neighborhood will notice what we did here and try something,” he said. “So, anyway, here’s to us.”

On the count of three, the crowd let go of the balloons. And then they clapped and smiled and cheered.