Brazen city 'drug store' Dealers and buyers: Shocking videotapes of open-air heroin market in East Baltimore.

February 25, 1997

FOURTEEN members of the Sugar Hill gang pleaded guilty after being videotaped by hidden camera while selling heroin in East Baltimore. But any sense of relief those convictions might bring is overwhelmed by depression when you actually view the taped evidence. It is astounding.

Even long-time city dwellers accustomed to seeing street dealers hawking their wares were amazed at the brazenness of this operation. The police videotapes, photographed from an informant's house, include footage of up to 75 people standing in orderly lines in a vacant lot waiting for the "drug store" to open.

The drug sellers, taking a tip from fast-food restaurants, had one person take the customers' money while another person reached into a plastic bag for the appropriate quantity of heroin. There was an arrogant nonchalance about the transactions. Occasionally a look-out brandished a weapon. Sometimes a customer hurried away, but most likely that's only because he was eager to get high.

People were patient. They didn't care who saw them. They were not ashamed. Most were African-American men, typically between the ages of 25 and 35, but some were much older with gray in their beards.

Some were obviously employed and wore work uniforms. The women were not garishly dressed hookers; one stood quietly with a purse in her hands. A girl, about 10, appeared to make a purchase. Not, we hope, for herself. No one blinked an eye, though.

These revealing videotapes illustrate the extent of Baltimore's drug problem. Meeting demand of this magnitude, which provided the Sugar Hill gang $65,000 a day at just one location, now will be handled by someone else -- who won't have any trouble finding replacement workers for the dealers who pleaded guilty. And that someone will find a more discreet location to take the place of the vacant lot raided by police.

It is frightening to watch the drug buyers. In another setting, few would suspect they even have a drug habit. But heroin is now part of their lives. There are so many customers that the cost to supply them, including arrest or even death, doesn't deter drug dealers. That's why preventive efforts must focus on the customers. Demand is driving the drug problem.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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