Crack drives city drug trade

April 20, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

The fact that Steven Lawrence McCormick was already wearing an orange jail jumpsuit didn't make him any less nervous.

Sitting at the defense table, he whispered to his lawyer, peeked over his shoulder at the jury pool behind him with a look that could be taken for anger or confusion, and whispered back to his lawyer.

The jury was selected, but soon McCormick took an out. Instead of being tried before a jury he pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

He had been caught twice selling several grams of crack cocaine last fall, Joe Michael, the county's lead prosecutor of felony drug cases, told the court.


McCormick, 37, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Cases like McCormick's are becoming routine in Washington County Circuit Court.

As crack cocaine has overtaken powder cocaine among those prosecuted on cocaine charges in the county, police and prosecutors say they have focused their efforts on rooting out the drug.

At the same time, market forces in the county make crack a healthy business proposition for sellers, complicating efforts to stem the drug trade, law enforcement officials say.

About 20 police officers, federal agents, prosecutors and forensic scientists are in constant motion seeking to put crack dealers and users behind bars.

Police say the drug hit Hagerstown in the late 1980s - by some accounts before it hit Baltimore, which is more known for its heroin trade.

Now, in addition to the illegal drug trade surrounding crack, local police agencies, the courts and the State's Attorney's Office have tailored a system that works constantly to abate the trade.

In 2002 there were 331 felony drug cases prosecuted in Washington County, and Michael estimates that just over half were crack cases. While marijuana rivals crack in the number of cases, crack is much more dangerous, he said.

"They're all illegal, but I will tell you that crack cocaine drives much of the violence ... much of the street crime in Hagerstown - whether it's prostitution, robbery, thug-on-thug violence - that it does drive the violence because of the money that is involved," Michael said.

Task force

Pete Lazich works closely with Michael. Lazich is the director of the Washington County Narcotics Task Force, which regularly uses undercover informants to arrest and prosecute drug dealers in the county.

There are 16 local police and federal agents on the task force who chase dealers daily. Dealers can face a 20-year sentence for one charge the second time they're caught, which makes selling drugs a risky proposition, Lazich said in his office in mid-March.

"What makes it worth the chance to take is profit," Lazich said.

A crack smoker can buy an "eight ball" - the common name for a 1/8-ounce bag of crack in Hagerstown - for about $170, Lazich said. The same bag of crack would go for $40 or $50 in New York City or Washington, he said.

Lazich said what is happening here is that dealers are buying crack in other areas of the country - New York and Florida seem to be popular connections - and selling them at inflated prices.

"You can see the profit margin," Lazich said.

While Lazich said there's no way to find out how many people in Washington County use crack, it doesn't seem the work will slow down soon.

One afternoon last month, Lazich was waiting for a phone call from an informant to make a bust. Lazich said it's not unheard of to get five to 10 such calls a day.

"We sometimes feel like you're fighting a losing battle. ... It just seems like you could have 10 more guys out here and everybody would be busy," he said.

By early March, the task force had made 56 arrests, Lazich said. All but 11 involved crack.

Drug science

Once someone is charged with cocaine possession, science becomes an integral part of the prosecution.

The Western Maryland Regional Crime Lab, which is housed in the basement of the Hagerstown Police Department's headquarters, handled about 1,000 drug cases in 2002. Those included felony and less serious misdemeanor cases, lab director Jeff Kercheval said.

Kercheval and other crime analysts use computer and chemical tests to make sure what is said to be crack is indeed crack. Then they testify in court.

The evidence locker a few doors down also testifies to the load of drug cases handled by the lab. Next to a partition adorned with confiscated weapons of all types, a wall begins to fill up with seized drugs.

A tall double-width file cabinet is full of smaller drug seizures, and a bookshelf next to it is beginning to fill with brown, letter-sized envelopes full of drugs, each with black marker numbers signifying case numbers.

Inside the envelopes are marijuana, heroin, Ecstasy and a few other types of drugs, but crack makes up about half the drugs in there, Kercheval said.

He said crack can come in all shapes and sizes.

"You can get it in a bundle. You can get it in a little baggie," he said.

You can even get it in what looks like a cookie, but "you wouldn't want to eat that," he said.

One thing you can tell about crack in Hagerstown, he said, is "there is no quality control standards. Someone is out to make a buck."

What police confiscate as crack in a street buy sometimes turns out to be soap or wax, he said.

Of course, it's real crack that the law enforcement system has taken on as its enemy. If this year is similar to last year, hundreds of crack buyers or crack dealers will be brought before a judge, and many will end up in prison.

Sending the dealers to prison keeps them from selling drugs, and that makes Joe Michael proud of his work even though it may seem like an endless battle, he says.

He said knocking down the drug supply keeps the drug violence found in other cities across the nation out of Hagerstown.

"I don't let myself get discouraged," he said. "If I stopped fighting, I can assure you it would be a losing battle."

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