Baltimore police say that an apparent decline in the supply of illegal drugs, which they believe is linked to a recent spate of killings and shootings, could be the beginning of a broader trend that might lead to more violence.
Detectives have begun closely tracking street sales and the purity of drugs they seize to discern clues about shifting alliances between street dealers and suppliers, said Maj. Anthony G. Cannavale, who leads the department's narcotics unit.
By increasing surveillance, police officials hope to prevent more violence.
"This is a whole new dynamic," Cannavale said. "This could just be the tip of something."
Officials say the recent increase in homicides and shootings may be linked to strife within and between drug organizations, which are struggling to maintain supplies, keep clients and make profits.
Police and federal authorities say drug dealers are having trouble getting their products through tighter security established at the nation's borders and airports after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Deliveries to dealers in Baltimore have slowed, officials say, and costs associated with transporting and smuggling have increased.
Drug prices have risen in the last few weeks, detectives say, and the purity of some drugs, especially cocaine, has gone down -- both possible indicators of diminished supply.
Cocaine, which went for $20,000 a kilogram before the attacks, is now selling for about $30,000 a kilogram, Cannavale said. And its quality has dropped, he said.
Police recently seized bricks of cocaine that were 30 percent pure -- down from 70 percent.
Detectives say that street-level cocaine and crack have also diminished in quality as dealers use more chemicals to dilute them.
Heroin also has increased significantly in price, from about $80,000 a kilogram to as much as $135,000, Cannavale said.
The price increase might indicate a declining supply, police say -- or might be dealers trying to capitalize on an uncertain market.
Cannavale and other Baltimore police officials say they have not noticed a decline in the purity of heroin. But several drug counselors said addicts are reporting such a drop.
Karen Reese, director of Man Alive, an outpatient methadone clinic on North Charles Street, said addicts are telling her that the "quality of heroin is really down."
"It's being cut," she said, "and there is a scarcity."
Reese also said she is getting about six more calls a day for treatment than just a few months ago. "That is fairly significant," she said.
Wardell Barksdale, director of the Harambee Treatment Center in Park Heights, said that, according to addicts, the decline in heroin purity began in August, a month before the attacks. He said addicts report that they can no longer get high on the typical $10 bag of heroin.
"Ten dollars really doesn't get you out of the gate," Barksdale said. "You need at least $20 to be able to feel the effects of it."
As for the cocaine being sold, Barksdale said, "It's just junk."
Barksdale said he is receiving twice as many requests for treatment as he did just a few months ago.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, noted that overdose deaths last month dropped to eight -- from 21 in September.
Although hesitant to directly link declining supply with the drop in overdose deaths, he said, "This is the lowest month I've seen. It seems like a reasonable hypothesis" that less pure drugs are causing fewer overdose deaths.
Lethal violence, however, is on the rise.
Since Oct. 1, killings have averaged nearly one a day, well above the previous pace, and shootings have increased 48 percent between Oct. 7 and Saturday, according to police statistics. However, violent crime overall, including assaults, rapes and robberies, is down 11 percent from last year.
Police say the number of deaths leads them to believe that several might be linked to drug organizations treading on each others' turf for clients.
It's also possible, they say, that drug organizations -- like legitimate businesses -- might in effect lay off members, who would then find other criminal ways to make money.
Many of the homicide victims are drug dealers at various levels within organizations and in different parts of the city, said Maj. Laurie Zuromski, who leads the homicide unit.
"I don't recall a time recently when we've had so many in rapid succession with drug motives," Zuromski said.
At least 15 recent homicide victims were shot in the head execution-style, police said.
"That was coming up day in and day out," Zuromski said. "It's more prevalent than what we've seen in recent months. The answer? I can't tell you. Perhaps it's the desire to kill on the first shot."
South American cartels supply the vast majority of Baltimore's heroin and cocaine, and much of that is smuggled on airplanes, across the Mexican border or through the Caribbean, customs officials said.
Customs officials say that immediately after the terrorist attacks, their seizures on the Mexican border dropped 80 percent.
"We think they temporarily decided to sit on loads for a couple of weeks," said Kevin Bell, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Baltimore said smugglers likely are switching routes to avoid tighter security at airports.
"They are not taking as many trips because they fear being detected," said DEA Agent Bill Hocker. "With the heightened security, everything is being checked. Drug traffickers and couriers are well aware of this."
Instead of trying to sneak drugs through airports, some dealers might be using cars, a less efficient method that adds to the price of drugs, Hocker said.