By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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The first calls came in mid-1992. Students at high schools in southwest Dade were talking about little white pills that had begun to pop up at parties along with the usual cocaine and marijuana. Some of the callers were seeking more information about the pills, downers they called "roofies" or "ropies." Other kids were distressed because they'd gotten into trouble of one kind or another while high and couldn't remember anything afterward.
James N. Hall, director of Up Front Drug Information Center, and his administrative director Carlos Zaldivar, who took most of the calls on Up Front's telephone hotline, didn't know exactly what drug the students were talking about. "Predominantly young girls were calling," Zaldivar says. "They were saying they would take it with beer, that it would give you a great buzz."
"One caller was pretty messed up and describing it as a Quaalude," remembers Hall, a white-haired bespectacled man who looks more like a well-mannered preacher than the walking drug database he is. "One person appeared to be rather [addicted]. We looked in the Physicians Desk Reference and didn't find anything like it. Then we looked in an international directory. In there we discovered Rohypnol, which we'd heard of because I'd heard of abuse by airline personnel with legitimate prescriptions in foreign countries. We'd also heard of Rohypnol abuse in Europe. But we hadn't seen it in this country."
Hall, age 53, is now credited with being the first in the U.S. to spot a trend of recreational Rohypnol use and to enlist the help of researchers, community leaders, and law enforcement authorities across the nation in warning of the drug's imminent spread among teenagers and young adults. The amnesia-inducing sedative, legally prescribed for insomnia in more than 60 countries but not here, became known as the date-rape drug because it was frequently used to knock out victims for purposes of sexual assault or robbery. But the national mobilization in the wake of publicity about roofies put the brakes on a possible epidemic; today tougher laws and regulations on both national and state levels have, according to researchers, cut down on the supply of the drug, although other pills are now being sold as roofies. Use among people under twenty has eased, but it's increased among older groups.
Ever since the days of Miami's cocaine cowboys in the Eighties, James Hall and Up Front have occupied a unique place among the scores of organizations and agencies addressing various aspects of America's Hydra-headed illicit-drug culture. Specialists in drug abuse prevention or treatment can't think of anything in the U.S. exactly like Up Front, a nonprofit clearinghouse for encyclopedic information about illegal and controlled drugs and their properties and drug addiction and trafficking. Hall likens Up Front's role to a variation on the League of Women Voters: In the same way the League provides objective information geared to helping voters participate more knowledgeably in the democratic process, Up Front goes to the grassroots -- what Hall calls "barefoot epidemiology" -- to ferret out the latest indications of trouble and trends, often before they emerge as problems. His expertise is sought by law enforcement and public health officials, reporters, and educators the world over, and it's always free. "He's one of the definitive drug sources in the country," says Miami Herald reporter Jeff Leen, who has done much of the nation's most authoritative reporting on drugs and drug trafficking. Besides sounding early alerts about Rohypnol, Hall was among the first to predict other outbreaks, such as a surge in heroin use in central Florida -- before a string of teenage overdose deaths in the Orlando area in 1995 and 1996.
"We work with Jim to identify those specific drugs we need to deal with," explains Don Byer, senior vice president of New York-based Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which mounts high-visibility media campaigns to "unsell" illicit drugs. "For example, when heroin started its resurgence, the benefit of what Jim does is really having his ear to the ground, knowing what future trends are. We're still trying to deal with marijuana going up, very specifically among high school kids. Attitudes are always a precursor to behavior, and Jim would assist us in getting a sense of what attitudes lead to that. Then we are in a position to deal with those trends. It's sort of a national resource sitting in Miami."
An editor at a small publishing house in New York called Hall recently at his desk in the downtown office of the Miami Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Community. He has been working as a consultant at the coalition for the past two and a half years while also running Up Front. The editor, referred by a New York colleague of Hall, was editing a book about drugs and wanted Hall to review a chapter about methamphetamines, stimulants that go by street names like speed and crank.
Elbows planted amid stacks of papers, files, and pharmaceutical reference books, Hall holds the telephone receiver with his left hand while the fingers of his right are arrayed against his forehead. He reads aloud through the manuscript he's been faxed, explaining to the editor suggested changes he's jotted down. The chapter is a methamphetamine primer, detailing the various legal and illegal forms of the drug, its street names, and effects on the body and mind. Hall, who contributed to a 1988 study of methamphetamine abuse for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, offers several refinements to the copy. "I'm avoiding hours [duration of the high] here," he says, discussing a paragraph about capsules. "Here's the reason: As use continues, tolerance builds rapidly. Usually the times you see are for the novice or first-time user." He rifles off a series of subtle distinctions: "'Ice' in some areas may refer to a form [of methamphetamine] that may just appear more crystal or clear than other forms. In Hawaii and throughout the Pacific Rim nations, ice may mean any methamphetamine that is smoked."