Four years ago, I wrote a piece on heroin use for Newcity. Since then, I moved to New York, hit rock bottom, and returned to Chicago.
Much has developed over the past four years. While I was in New York, a major heroin bust (the Dana Bostic ring on the West Side) was responsible for making my old dope spot disappear. In fact, when I came back to Chicago, I went directly from O’Hare to the West Side via the Blue Line, straight to the old “clear bag” spot and found no one there. But within several minutes someone walked me to another spot and I was all set.
Since then, I have been all over the West Side countless times. I’ve been arrested, robbed, beaten up, almost arrested again, and had a gun stuck in my belly in broad daylight—all in less than two years. I have a better feel for how the local markets work. A small amount has been written, mostly by Alex Kotlowitz and Lance Williams, about how the local black gangs have been disintegrating into smaller cooperatives, where profits matter more than the color of your flag. (Meanwhile the Hispanic gangs are said to be where the black gangs were twenty years ago, fighting over territory and colors.) Unfortunately this has resulted in lower-purity heroin for Chicago users, relative to East Coast markets. On the East Coast, the bigger distributors have increased their impact on the retail markets in an effort to boost profits. In Chicago, the efforts to boost profits simply result in dealers doing more stepping on the bags (diluting the product) as each player in the supply chain tries to extract the maximum value from his segment. New York City distributors have become more vertically integrated, so when a large buyer on the East Coast makes, say, a $150,000 purchase of heroin, it is often delivered to him already bagged up and in bundles (bundles out east are what jabs are here in Chicago, that is a dozen single doses, known as blows). This decreases the likelihood that dealers lower down on the chain will step on the product in the East Coast, so it has the bonus effect of increasing quality control all the way down the chain of command.
In Chicago, some blocks have dope spots on corners that have been operating continuously for longer than thirty years. Other blocks have more sporadic markets. I’m not one-hundred-percent sure as to why. Some blocks are simply more violent, and others attract more attention from the police. Even the hottest blocks might see a group of shorties come out of seemingly nowhere and start serving rocks and blows. (Shorties is a street term for young men; sometimes they just hang out, othertimes they interact with the public in the drug trade; in those cases they’re the equivalent of the sales clerks, say, at the Gap, albeit making far more than minimum wage. And sometimes they offer security, like a better-armed version of the mall cop.)
This is how it usually works. The real estate along the blocks that run perpendicular to Pulaski from roughly 30th Street to North Avenue is extremely valuable to drug dealers. Especially valuable are the blocks immediately surrounding certain train stops, most notably the Green Line train stops running along Lake Street. The Pulaski Green Line stop is so hot it sizzles. At any given time, three or four different groups of dealers may be working the intersection of Lake and Pulaski, and the police seem to know it.
Some blocks, like the 4000 block of West Monroe, may not have a permanent presence of dealers. I’ve been told that the shorties on this particular block are especially hated by cliques on other blocks, and that for this reason, there are more guns on the 4000 block of West Monroe than most blocks on the West Side. But if you walk down the street today, it appears to be totally vacant.
The shorties will be there soon. The shorties are the risk-takers. You see them at the more transient dope spots.
All it takes is one resident. For the most part, strangers can’t come in and start using that valuable real estate to sell drugs. In a way, the street’s residents have a vested interest in who is making money there. The way that it works is that a respected—or at least well-known and possibly feared—shortie who grew up on the block or whose people live on the block or, ideally, who lives on the block himself, is the way in for his cohort. That’s about all it takes to stake a legitimate claim to a block. From that point on, they don’t even necessarily have to defend their turf from competitors, as the movies would suggest. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. What’s more likely is that the block will see nearly constant gunfire from simple haters rather than as part of the drug trade.
Recently, the block that Dana Bostic’s safe house sat on witnessed three shootings within a very short period. Three shorties got shot, all familiar faces to me. I walked past the makeshift memorials of balloons, poster boards with misspelled messages scrawled on them with Sharpies, and empty Patron bottles. I remember it gave me a stir to read about these murders that I knew about firsthand. But why? This is where the nature of drug addiction gets insidious.
The fact is, and I don’t care who tries to dispute this, that a majority of the people who make the daily migration to the West Side to cop blows are as addicted to the ritual of copping dope as they are to the dope itself. It is an adrenaline rush no different than those achieved by people who jump out of airplanes. And dope fiends get to experience it every day.
A neurologist named Marc Lewis recently wrote an excellent book about how the addicted brain functions, “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain.” Written by a former junkie, the book offers cutting-edge explanations of how drugs, and a subsequent lack of drugs, work on the brain. Dr. Lewis goes chapter by chapter telling stories such as how he used to have unrestricted access to huge jars of pure morphine as a young medical student in the days before modern controls on these chemicals. And just as he is getting to a really funny or interesting part about the time his girlfriend took so much LSD that she thought she was a kitten, he digresses into a fascinating explanation of how the external chemicals are causing the brain to release, or block the reuptake of, certain neurotransmitters. It makes for really good reading, especially if you’re a junkie.
I came to realize that every time I exited the West Side with drugs in hand and my body and freedom intact, a highly gratifying rush of dopamine flooded my brain. Now imagine this everyday occurrence: you are on West Monroe, a block you know to be highly volatile. You are there to buy, say, fifty bucks worth of dope. You turn the corner onto Monroe from Pulaski. A Crown Victoria—the classic police car—slowly glides up the street, turns and disappears. The block seems empty, although you know of one or two abandoned buildings that the shorties sometimes use. You also see a few of them standing at the corner of Monroe and Karlov. This is relevant for a white person like me, because the goal is to stay as close to Pulaski as possible, so you can cop your dope, and then melt back into the foot traffic on Pulaski, a main thoroughfare. But today you see that you’re going to have to walk all the way down to Karlov. You sigh and start walking. The same Crown Victoria suddenly glides from behind you again, and then slowly disappears again. This has you on edge. Shit, it has you downright petrified. And as you get closer to the shorties standing at Karlov, you can just sense that they are on edge too.
“Anybody working?” you ask. All you get in return are blank looks. But you know they’re working. Why do they have to make this harder for you? Your eyebrows pop up expectantly.
“Nothing going on, man” one of them replies. You are overcome by a sinking feeling. It makes you totally forget about the Crown Victoria. Plus, who cares about that Crown Vic anyways now? You don’t even have any fucking dope! You turn around for the walk back to Pulaski and plot your next move. There are hundreds (thousands?) of dope spots in Garfield Park and nearby Humboldt Park, K-town, Lawndale and Hermosa. But you came to Monroe for a reason. The shit is good, man, and you were really looking forward to catching a healthy, familiar nod.
Suddenly you hear a shout from behind you. One of the shorties tells you to go into the alley. Dopamine fills your synapses as your hopes are raised. But it is quickly reuptaken as you stand exposed in a dangerous alley where either 1) this shortie, who currently isn’t making money because of the cops sitting on his block, is about to rob you, or 2) the detectives in the Crown Vic are going to see you standing there like an idiot in an alley in a neighborhood that, as a white person, you have no business being in. As every ten seconds go by, you get increasingly panicky.
And then it happens. As you stand there looking stupid, a shortie sprints toward you. Your knees bend slightly in response, a subconscious reaction preparing you to run if necessary. You peer into his eyes to discern a motive. “How many!” he yells at you as he gets closer.
“Five!” You respond and start digging for your money, because there are few greater faux-pas than not having your money ready. Within seconds he reaches you and you exchange money for drugs. No release of dopamine yet—you still have to get off the block, and you are deep into fight or flight mode. You wrap the five bags of dope in a cigarette wrapper and shove them as deep in your ass crack as they can go, and start walking as fast as you can toward Pulaski without looking like you obviously just purchased drugs, because in your altered state of mind, you do not realize that this isn’t possible.
Now you’re safe and it feels so good! You almost don’t even have to use the drugs to feel high! You feel chatty all of a sudden. You start joking with the other junkies on the Pulaski bus. You ask them where they copped. Everyone on the bus is happy. You all seem to collectively exude the impression that life is good.
You get home, still totally psyched and go through the ritual you love. You break out your works. You cook up the first shot. You power it home. You do it again. And again. And guess what? The dope is garbage. West Monroe just happened to fall off today. Couldn’t someone have taken the ten seconds it would take to tell you?
That’s the dope game.
It stinks, but it is extremely hard to walk away from. In reality, a well-informed user is going to be able to find acceptable dope nine times out of ten. But not every user is well-informed. Buyers coming from other neighborhoods must rely on familiar faces for advice. All over the West Side the heroin market’s various cottage industries are seen near bus stops, gas stations and major intersections. There are people who sell cigarettes for fifty cents each, or packs of Newports for $7.50. There are neighborhood residents who spot newbie buyers walking uncertainly along Pulaski looking to score, and offer to help them in exchange for a finder’s fee. Poverty and opportunity breed ingenuity, but this is not always a positive development. Sometimes, when the police sweep a block, one or two people working together will stand at the spot pretending like it is business as usual. They have bags with some color or logo ready for sale to unsuspecting customers, especially white folks, who have the bad luck to come shopping at the spot at the wrong time. This is what users call getting “whoomped,” and it feels terrible when it happens to you.
Another cottage industry is the market for prescription drugs. Sedatives are sold, as is methadone and suboxone, two drugs used to stave off opiate withdrawal symptoms. The 4000 block of West Madison has long been a thriving open-air market for prescription drugs. Though people come not just for narcotics, but also for penicillin and blood-pressure medication, controlled substances are the block’s main attraction. In fact, one drug in particular reigns supreme over all others on the 4000 block of West Madison: Xanax.
Recently, authorities swept the area, and a majority of sellers are either afraid to return, or have had their supplies cut. In fact, authorities have reportedly used a bit of cunning in an effort to close down the market on that block. According to various sources many of the individuals selling pills often disposed of their empty prescription bottles very haphazardly, neglecting to tear off the labels containing patient information, including their names.
Sometimes people sell their own pills on the block. Other people work in very small networks selling pills for a person one level above them. Ultimately, a huge number of pill bottles are emptied over the course of a day/week/month/year. Reportedly, authorities have gathered many of the empty bottles and provided the names to the doctors prescribing various medications to owners of bottles found by the authorities. As a result, the legitimacy of numerous patients was questioned and tested, and many of them had their prescription refills terminated.
These actions coincided with other sweeps of the block conducted by the Chicago police and, as a result, the open-air pill market operates at a tiny fraction of its potential capacity. And this has been the case for several months now. Demand far outstrips supply, and it stands to be seen how this very localized market responds. Even more recently, Chicago police have designated this strip a Safe Passage route for Chicago Public School students, even further squeezing supply.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry (and the Drug Enforcement Agency) has moved to tighten control of opiate painkillers. Recently, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of OxyContin, has convinced the Food and Drug Administration that its patent on OxyContin should be extended beyond its expiration because not doing so would result in more abuse, diversion and overdose deaths. This as a flood of generic OxyContin was poised to hit the markets, possibly without the same anti-abuse measures in place. One of the points Purdue used to convince the FDA was its new method for making it harder for junkies to circumvent the time-release mechanism of OxyContin by manufacturing them using new, harder polymers that are more difficult to crush.
Also interesting is that startup companies are devising interesting new strategies that, while ostensibly serving the purpose of helping the elderly or psychologically impaired remember to take their medications, can also be used to prevent diversion of controlled prescribed drugs. One company has designed a bottle that glows red when a dose is missed. Another company, AdhereTech, has designed a bottle that shows spots closely resembling a rotting banana when doses are missed.
It is interesting to ponder whether a combination of structural changes to a large segment of the black market might result in lower abuse and addiction rates. Twenty years ago, Xanax and cocaine were typically paired together by users like peanut butter and jelly. Today, Xanax goes hand in hand with opiate abuse, and it is resulting in a spike in emergency-room visits and overdose deaths. Additionally, Xanax has become a favorite adulterant used in Chicago to cut heroin. It makes users think the product they are buying is giving them the all-important heroin nod, when in fact it is at least partially due to the dope being cut with Xanax. Thus, heroin users can find themselves unknowingly addicted to Xanax, which is one of the most dangerously addictive prescribed medications.
And the use of Xanax as cut is happening on a large-enough scale to make this fact alone newsworthy.
Quitting Xanax cold turkey can result in delirium tremens (DTs)—like with alcohol abuse—and even death. For those not quite that far in their addiction, non-lethal physical withdrawal from Xanax is usually considered worse than heroin withdrawal. The implications for Chicago are huge, in terms of individual suffering, a potential increase in emergency-room visits, and other increases in social costs.
Meanwhile it’s business as usual. One drug dealer I knew was shot to death as he went to re-up. It was a robbery. His crew had a good spot at the corner of Flournoy and Springfield. But a group of young men closer to Pulaski apparently came to resent all the potential business simply walking right past them, so shootings started taking place. The entire crew together judged it too dangerous to remain on the block and everyone went back to their homes on the South Side and started selling over their phones. When I heard that James had been shot on the block around midnight I had to ask myself “Why the hell would he go there so late?” Everyone knows how dangerous the area is at night. Unfortunately there are no answers for those of us who knew him.
I’m not one to confuse my drug dealer with my friend, but James, who left behind a pregnant girlfriend, was a really likable guy—one of those people who makes you feel at ease for some unknown reason.