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Low-crime area is a good place to commit crime

December 02, 2004

Things are getting ugly in the ongoing "Mail Call" debate over tomatoes. You will recall that this began innocently enough, when someone called the paper's phone-in bulletin board asking why local salads were being served without tomatoes.

This prompted another caller to offer the first caller an ample supply of vine-ripened tomatoes, but this was rejected by the first caller who said obviously there was access to bulk tomatoes, but the beef was specifically with salad tomatoes. At which point the other caller renewed the offer with the advice to carry a tomato to the restaurant in a hip pocket.

Nasty business. And it was at this point I ripped up the paper and vowed never to read the feature again, because it is more addictive than crack.

And speaking of crack, there was a fascinating story in Monday's paper by Brian Shappell about the Hagerstown drug trade. Most notable was Chief Arthur Smith having the guts to come out and speak the truth, that being that the solution is education, not ever-increasing manpower.

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As long as youngsters are turning into customers, all the cops in the world aren't going to be able to put an end to such a desperate trade.

The other interesting aspect is that most of the Hagerstown dealers are not from Hagerstown, but from New York City. I feel the need to address this, because I have learned the most faithful readers of this column tend to be people with a lot of time on their hands, such as prison inmates, crack dealers and people with master's degrees in communications.

If it were anything but drugs, it might be kind of a heartwarming story. Young entrepreneurs who are weary of the violence, filth and the rat race of the big city, and have set out for the frontier in covered wagons with gold-accent trim and tinted canvas.

According to the paper, "Smith said the area is alluring to drug dealers because Hagerstown is cleaner and safer than the streets of New York City or Baltimore."

There's a sound bite for the local tourism board if I've ever heard one: "Nine out of 10 crack dealers prefer Hagerstown."

The story continues. "Several officers have reported that drug dealers have made comments that they barely have a need to carry a gun while doing business in Hagerstown, something unheard of in their home city."

If you want to commit a crime, it's best to find a low-crime area in which to do it, I suppose - although I confess, I'd never stopped to look at it that way before.

"Barely have the need to carry a gun." That's a perk if I've ever heard it. I wish I could come to work every day secure in the knowledge that at some point I wouldn't want to murder someone, but it never seems to work out that way.

Must make a great story for them when they go home to the city for the holidays.

For anyone who think it's easy being a cop, just imagine if you had to walk out the door in the morning, telling your spouse, "Don't worry dear, they barely carry guns."

Another interesting revelation is that the markup on crack here is terrific. Hagerstown being such a rural outpost with relatively limited supply, selling crack is like selling hooch in the Klondike in 1901. A rock that sells for $7 in the city can bring $40 to $50 here. With those kinds of margins, I'd think the Hagerstown City Council would feel safe in passing a crack tax.

But not all of this drug story is a warm and fuzzy profile of young businessmen on their way up. Tough prosecutors, judges and undercover police, not to mention cameras on the streets, are causing discomfort. I've always heard that government regulations made it hard on small business, and here is your proof.

So sadly, the drug market is not what it was in the good old days, when you could walk out into the fresh air and trust that the person you were doing business with was a legitimate lawbreaker. The story says "dealers are starting to shy away from selling to complete strangers."

Man, if you can't trust a junkie, who can you trust?

Well, for one, you can trust that I'll be at Borders Books, Music and Cafe in the Centre at Hagerstown this Saturday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m. signing copies of "Home Detention." Until then, may you all be blessed, and may all your salads have tomatoes.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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