Doing Business with the Drug Business

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

July 04, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

There are many ways to make money from the drug trade besides selling addictive chemicals. What do we call the people who sell things that support the deadly business, keeping well back from the scenes of violence and depravity playing out on the streets but just as critically involved as the ''pushers''?

A couple of recent raids, executed by the ''Zone Rangers'' drug-enforcement unit, brought new attention to this mostly unseen side of the problem. Tuesday, the Rangers, plainclothes officers from the Eastern Police District, swooped downtown to seize suspected drug paraphernalia from the Sonja Wholesale shop, a showroom and warehouse near the Lexington Market.

According to Sgt. John Sieracki, tips from several sources convinced the police the Sonja shop was a major supplier for the glassine ''bags,'' capsules and vials used to package illicit drugs by traffickers all over the city. Acting on a warrant, the Rangers hauled away a truckload of stuff, some of which surprised even them:

* 151 ''bricks'' of mannite, an Italian baby laxative, often used to ''cut'' or dilute drugs;

* Large and small jars of quinine, used to cut heroin;

* Two expensive digital scales, top quality, and 14 dietary scales, useful in weighing out small quantities of dope;

* 99 plastic strainers, which could be used to mix drugs;

* 12,000 small plastic bottles which could be used to hold ''crack'' cocaine and tops, packaged separately;

* 6,000 manila envelopes;

* More than a quarter of a million plastic vials, in various sizes with some even shaped like miniature missiles, of the kind commonly used for cocaine; tops, in a range of colors drug dealers often use to distinguish one ''brand'' from another, to be added as specified;

* Nearly 2 million glassine bags, in assorted colors, and thousands of clear gelatine capsules;

* More than 1 million plastic Ziploc bags.

The drug probers were probably surprised to find the ''cut'' material. It links too closely to the dirty dealing in the streets, and supposedly legitimate business operators want not to be identified with the clientele for paraphernalia. Police say coke dealers typically pay $20 for 100 vials. For 250,000 vials, then, drug dealers would pay $50,000.

They pay similar markups for salable quantities of glassine bags, crack ''jugs,'' Ziplocs, even envelopes and brown paper bags. Add in the expected markups for the scales, expensive even without the high prices drug hustlers can pay, and it's apparent the seized booty could bring in major-league profits.

It could also help spread death on the streets, all over the city.

No one got busted when the narcotics knockers showed up at the Sonja shop. An interpreter who talked to a woman there said the owner, Joseph Yi, 33, was out of the country. When he shows up, there are likely to be questions waiting, however, especially since $1,600 found under his store's cash drawer is suspected to have come from sales to drug dealers.

Another raid, Wednesday at the Jet Set delicatessen, Federal and Luzerne streets, netted $4,000 in confiscated cash, 10 one-ounce jars of quinine, a dozen bottles of Inositol, 70 bricks of mannite, 15 bags of gelatine capsules (500 to each bag) and a bottle of another cutting agent.

The Jet Set's owner, William Stokes, had been raided before, officers said. Still, much of the alleged drug paraphernalia was sitting on shelves, in plain display.

It is possible to point to legitimate uses for each of the items seized in the raids. It is also possible, the Zone Rangers say, to watch known drug dealers visit such places as those raided to buy the materials they use to prepare controlled and dangerous substances for illicit sale in the streets.

Law-enforcement officials call the bankers who launder drug money ''smurfs,'' after the good-natured TV characters whose clean living habits are designed to be examples for kids.

We call drug dealers pushers and recognize the social destruction their murderous games can cause. As a judge said when he signed the warrants for these raids, it is high time the good people in society took a close look at the evil spread when supposedly legitimate businesses play supporting roles for the nasty business drug dealers do in the streets.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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