Violent Crimes Undercut Marijuana's Mellow Image
By KEVIN FLYNN
Police officials in New York City, who spent years battling a crack scourge that sent the murder rate soaring, say
they are now seeing increasing violence among dealers of marijuana, a drug that they say no longer fits its laid-back image.
The level of violence still pales in comparison to the carnage of the turf wars between rival crack gangs a decade ago. But officials say they believe that the number of marijuana-related shootings has gone up in recent years and that investigators now routinely find guns, including submachine guns, when they execute search warrants at marijuana stash houses.
In one widely publicized example of violence, a 39-year-old woman, Jennifer Stahl, was fatally shot, along with two friends, nine days ago in her apartment above the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan. She was a victim of two men who, investigators believe, came to rob her of the cash profits from her high-priced marijuana business.
But many other peddlers, most of them selling cheaper marijuana in poorer neighborhoods, have been shot over the last few years, police officials say, although many of those crimes drew little attention, even when the dealers died.
Two weeks ago, for example, Roberto DeJesus, 20, who had been arrested a half-dozen times on marijuana-related charges, was fatally shot in the Bronx after what investigators described as a dispute with a rival dealer over the rights to sell on a particular stretch of Valentine Avenue.
"Some people may think the drug is benign, but the distribution network certainly is not," said Deputy Chief Michael Tiffany, commander of the Bronx Narcotics Division. "For some of our policy makers, people who are not cops, sometimes their only connection to marijuana was watching the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East. Times have changed. None of the dealers in the Bronx are smoking joints and discussing Nietzsche."
New York City does not keep statistics on marijuana-related violence, so it is unclear how much the number of violent incidents has grown, or to what extent marijuana- related violence has become more visible simply because the gunfire from the crack trade has dissipated. For their part, officials in the Drug Enforcement Administration said they had not collected sufficient information to say that marijuana trafficking nationwide is more violent. But New York officials, both police supervisors and prosecutors, said the trend was clear.
"The marijuana trade in New York City is controlled and run through the use of violence," Joseph P. Dunne, the first deputy police commissioner, said at a City Hall news conference last week. "We have been saying this for some time. This is not news to us."
Bridget G. Brennan, the city's special narcotics prosecutor, said that highly organized, well-armed groups that once concentrated on the cross- continent shipment of cocaine and heroin were now dealing in marijuana as well. Similarly, Bronx narcotics investigators said that they had identified eight separate heroin or cocaine trafficking locations in the borough that had switched over to marijuana sales in the last year.
One impetus for the switch, officials said, is that newer, increasingly potent strains of marijuana are now selling at prices that are higher than the price of gold. The demand for crack cocaine has also shrunk, and the penalties for cocaine trafficking remain far more severe than those for dealing in marijuana.
For example, under New York law, a person convicted of possessing 10 pounds of high-grade marijuana, with a potential street value of as much as $50,000, is liable for the same prison term as a person caught with $120 worth of cocaine.
At the time the laws were drawn up, the street value of 10 pounds of some kinds of high-grade marijuana was far less than it is today.
Although increased anti-narcotics patrols, largely financed through an overtime program known as Operation Condor, have produced a flood of misdemeanor marijuana arrests, investigators said that dealers caught selling the $5 and $10 bags that are typically sold on the streets were rarely sent to jail for any length of time. As a result, they said, none of them are particularly interested in briefing detectives on the intricacies of their drug gangs.
Although national surveys indicate that marijuana use among the young has leveled off in recent years, state and city officials and substance abuse counselors said that demand in New York City remained quite high, as indicated by the large amount of marijuana circulating in the streets.
The police seized 15,520 pounds last year, or triple the amount seized five years ago.
In some cases, officials said, the market for marijuana has benefited from the fact that many young people are loath to repeat the mistakes of their crack-addicted elders. "They disdain crack use partly because of the results they see all around them," said Ms. Brennan, the special prosecutor.
The price increases have been least noticeable in the lower grades of marijuana, many of them smuggled in from Mexico and sold for $100 to $200 an ounce. In many neighborhoods, they are often sold under street names like Chronic or Chocolate and are smoked, not in rolling papers, but in hollowed-out cigars known as blunts. Investigators said that one change in recent years has been in the quantity of marijuana delivered in a so-called nickel bag that sells for $5.
"It's like the potato chip companies," said Lt. Charles Shevlin of the Narcotics Division. "They kept the price the same but they made the bag smaller."
The real escalation in prices drawing dealers into the market has been in high-grade varieties of marijuana, in which ounces typically sell for $300 to $600, officials said. Unlike years ago, when high-priced marijuana generally was smuggled in from exotic places, much of the most potent crops are now grown domestically, not in outdoor fields, but in indoor farms that use hydroponic technology, in which the marijuana is cultivated in water and liquid nutrients.
"I know people," said a veteran marijuana smoker from Manhattan, "who when they go to Jamaica they bring their pot with them because we want better pot while we are there."
This increase in potency is one reason that high-end strains have become so expensive. Experts said they had more than triple the potency of regular marijuana, although activists for the legalization of the drug say that the strength of run-of- the-mill marijuana has not increased remarkably in recent years.
Another reason for the price increase, according to Allen F. St. Pierre, the executive director of Norml, which advocates the legalization of marijuana, is that some dealers have learned that a product marketed as the best can often command almost any price. He recalled being at an Upper West Side apartment several months ago when a dealer, who ran a beeper-based delivery service, explained why one variety of marijuana was priced at $500 per ounce. "That is for people who need to pay that much for it," he recalled the dealer saying.
This sort of high-grade marijuana, often sold under names like Hydro or Bubble Gum, was among the types sold by Ms. Stahl in her apartment on Seventh Avenue for several years before the gunmen barged in, killing her and two of her friends. "People who view marijuana peddling as victimless have not seen the carnage left in the apartment above the Carnegie Deli," said Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik.
But Mr. St. Pierre said that the government bore at least partial responsibility for any increase in violence, because it had made the laws that created a black market. "It should not be too big of a surprise," he said, "that when a product is pushed to such a valuable level that we lose the social controls."