Illegal prescription drug sales flourish at Lexington Market

Nearby treatment clinics fuel traffic, police say

June 12, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Lunchtime inside Lexington Market: Amid crab stands and fruit stalls, shoppers and merchants bustle and buzz. It's a crowded, multiracial scene, a testament to the energy and random fellowship of city life.

Just outside the market's main entrance on Eutaw Street, a different kind of commerce is taking place. Here, beside a picture window extolling the history of the nation's oldest continuously run public market, an illegal trade in prescription medications flourishes.

In a city where sidewalk sales of heroin and cocaine are notoriously common, illicitly sold medicine may hardly seem like a major problem. But some market vendors say it seems to be getting worse and is diminishing the appeal of one of Baltimore's foremost attractions.

MijizaDorsey sells jewelry from a cart at the market. She said that during the 15 years she has worked there, once-sporadic traffic has become more prevalent.

"People are afraid to take out their wallets," Dorsey said. "Business is good - don't get me wrong - but it could be much better, if there weren't all those people outside."

While high-ranking city law enforcement officials readily acknowledge that black-market pills are widely available around Lexington Market, they deny that the area has a drug problem. Some Lexington Market vendors flatly dismiss the notion that there is drug traffic on the sidewalk.

Lexington Market officials declined repeated requests for comment.

On one sunny Thursday, a small, thin, stoop-backed man in a blue windbreaker paces along the front of the market, offering Xanax and "dings" to bystanders. A couple of days later, as the sky threatens rain, a tall, gentle-faced man walks the same route, reeling off a staccato patter in the manner - if not quite at the volume - of a ballpark beer hawker.

"You can get any kind of pills here," he says, adding apologetically that for heroin you need to go a few blocks west.

Police say the commerce in prescription drugs has long been part of the Lexington Market streetscape and is fed by the proximity of several hospitals and addiction-treatment centers.

The pill trade "is an ongoing problem, going on for years, but it's very minor, and we don't have the violence associated with it, either," said Maj. Steven McMahon of the Central District, which includes Lexington Market. McMahon said nearly 40 pill-related arrests took place near the market last year, and that 20 have been made this year.

No homicides or rapes have occurred last year or this year in the Lexington Market area. Twenty larcenies were reported last year as of May 11, compared with 21 this year.

Herman Jones is president of Glass Substance Abuse Programs Inc., one of three methadone clinics within walking distance of Lexington Market. Jones said the market is a center of activity for addicts who have either gotten hooked on prescription drugs or are selling them to finance a cocaine or heroin habit.

"The entire city's drug situation is getting worse, and it manifests itself at the market," Jones said.

While a wide variety of medications are illegally sold around the market, Jones said, the largest category of drugs peddled there might be benzodiazepines, or "benzos." This family of anti-anxiety and anti-hypertension medicines includes Valium, Xanax and clonidine, the full name for the "dings" offered by one of the Eutaw Street sellers.

Jones said drugs such as clonidine are often used to enhance - or "kick" - the effects of heroin or other drugs. He added that benzos can be extremely addictive and stay in a user's body for about a month while heroin remains for only three or four days.

Methadone, administered by clinics to block the effects of heroin, is among the offerings of the curbside pharmacy.

Many clinics require patients to speak after receiving their liquid dose of methadone, to ensure that it has been swallowed. Addicts have been known to take their medication without swallowing, spitting it into a cup once they are outside the clinic.

The resulting cocktail of saliva and methadone, referred to as a "spitback," can then be sold on the street to heroin users who either cannot get into a treatment program or are looking for a way to tide themselves over till the next hit.

Jones said addicts will use various means to get prescription drugs, from deceit to force.

"Patients are stealing, forging, breaking into pharmacies," he said. "If you hit four or five doctors, you can get a lot of pills."

Outside Lexington Market, an elderly man with a hard, lined face walks by and asks for a dollar. When asked if someone could buy drugs here at the market, his partner - also elderly- swoops in and says you can get anything you want. The men stand close by, eager as pigeons at a park bench, crowding in, asking for exactly what is wanted.

It's lunchtime. Nearby, white-shirted Lexington Market police pace and hover, watching for suspicious activity.

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