When 16-year-old Chris drove to an apartment complex in Owings Mills last summer to buy crack cocaine, the dealers were so anxious for sales "they'd practically beat each other up to get to the car first," he says.
Chris, who asked that his real name not be used, was one of four teen-agers caught in a sting operation in Owings Mills during which 30 people were arrested.
In Essex last month, a five-month investigation into the trafficking of crack resulted in arrest warrants for 43 young people on a variety of drug charges.
In Baltimore County, at least 13 teens, including a 13-year-old girl, have been arrested for buying, selling or using crack or cocaine since the Owings Mills drug bust in July. Nine of those teens were arrested since September, according to police spokesman Sgt. Steve Doarnberger.
And since school started, more than 20 juveniles have been admitted into public programs for crack cocaine abuse, says Michael Gimbel, director of the county's office of substance abuse.
"There is something going on here that is really scary," Gimbel says.
"We have not seen crack out here at all. . . and we've been pretty happy about that. But now, all of a sudden, since school has started, we are seeing and hearing of more and more crack use among teen-agers," he says.
Much of Gimbel's concern is based upon what kids say about the drug's wide availability. Buying crack, or "ready rock" as some of the kids call it, is easier than buying powdered cocaine. Or alcohol.
And crack, Gimbel says, "is the most addictive drug that we know of."
"A person . . . can become totally addicted in three weeks. That's a process that normally takes six months to two years on another drug. . . . The thing that makes crack such a deadly drug is that it's almost 100 percent pure cocaine. Second of all, it's smoked, which means it will reach your brain in eight to 10 seconds."
Powdered cocaine takes between eight and 10 minutes to reach the brain, Gimbel says.
The high that users get from crack is very intense, and very short-lived, he says.
"The desire to take more crack is there. So they keep using, over and over," he says.
Most of the crack use that has resulted in arrests or youths seeking treatment in Baltimore County has been in Owings Mills, Maiden's Choice, Lansdowne and Arbutus. In some locations, the county's proximity to the city makes it easier for city dealers to cross the line to sell the drug, or for county kids to go downtown, officials say.
Last year in Baltimore, 284 juveniles were arrested for possession of cocaine; 635 were arrested for distribution. In the county, 22 juveniles were arrested for possession of cocaine; 36 arrests were for distribution.
Lt. Rob Dewberry of the Baltimore County police narcotics unit estimates that about 50 percent of the county's cocaine arrests are for crack cocaine.
Tracking the actual number of arrests for crack is difficult because neither the county nor the city differentiates between crack and other forms of cocaine in arrest records. In other counties, records of cocaine arrests are not distinguished from those resulting from the possession or distribution of other types of drugs.
Officials say that bags of crack sold on the street used to cost $25 or $50. But smaller bags that cost only $10 or $15 -- a more affordable price for teens -- are now readily available.
"They're opening up a whole new market out there," Dewberry says. "And we see more and more juveniles acting as street distributors."
"We have a lot of older kids who are into distributing," says Barbara Sullivan, drug-education facilitator for Baltimore County public schools.
"We're hitting them with, 'Don't use drugs,' but they're seeing ias a very lucrative business . . . it's very tough. We're in a very materialistic society."
For teens like Chris and his friend, George, it was the novelty that made crack appealing.
"I'd never done it before, and I wanted to try it," Chris says.
Chris says that he spent much of his time last summer smoking crack. He paid for the drug with money he made working for his father as a plumber's assistant, he says.
"I did it every day, at least 2 grams," he says.
Chris was arrested twice last summer, the first time in July when he took George, 18, with him to buy crack. Both were placed in the county education program for teens who abuse drugs.
Both admit to smoking pot, taking LSD and drinking before trying crack. And both say they knew of crack's addictive traits, and the dangers involved in taking it.
"It definitely changes you," says Chris. "You don't [care] about your friends, family, life. You look back on it and say, 'Whoa! What was I doing?' I could have been out . . . doing things with my friends and not [smoking crack], worrying if I was gonna get busted."
"Every party you go to, someone's asking you if you wanna buy it," says George, who asked that his last name not be used.