Dope Detective

If it gets you high, chances are that James Hall knows more about it than anyone anywhere

Hall says methamphetamine has been seen only rarely -- at least up until now -- in drug-friendly Miami. The reason, he and other researchers have concluded, is that powerful Florida cocaine-trafficking interests have kept the competition out. But the market is changing, and recently methamphetamine has been moving into the state in a big way. "We're about the last untapped area," Hall notes. "But now we're seeing large-scale manufacturing operations by Mexicans on both sides of the border, and the cocaine traffickers can't scare them off like they could the small-time cookers. We were literally able to track it moving right down I-75."

Hall's tracking system employs methodologies ranging from statistical analysis to interviews with street people. He's in contact with every segment of the population -- short of armed and dangerous ones -- that can give him a look at the reality of drug use from one perspective or another. He exchanges facts, figures, and news with other researchers at frequent international, national, and local professional conferences; his informational network in Dade includes school and drug-treatment program counselors, police officers, and other law enforcement and judicial officials. Among his best sources are jail inmates, recovering addicts in treatment, and active drug users who call the Up Front hotline or who are surveyed as part of an occasional University of Miami heroin study. Up Front's Florida Drug Hotline (757-2566), which offers the advantage of anonymity to many who would never discuss drug use otherwise, is a two-way tip line for information from all over the state and even around the globe.

The Miami Coalition's anonymous survey of Dade public school students, conducted every other year, sometimes yields unexpected results, such as the popularity of LSD four years ago and a big jump in marijuana use two years ago; results of the latest survey are being analyzed by statisticians at Florida International University. Other statistics on drug-related deaths and crimes come from the medical examiner's office and hospital emergency rooms. Hall used to put all this together in newsletters and faxes, which are still spoken of with great enthusiasm by local recipients but which he's discontinued for financial reasons. He thinks a planned Miami Coalition/Up Front Website and possibly joint publications will fill that void.

For the past twelve years Hall has been part of the twenty-city Community Epidemiology Work Group sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which presents compilations every six months on regional drug-use patterns. In June 1993 Hall reported on the first U.S. Rohypnol abuse at the NIDA conference. "Then I find Rohypnol down on the Mexican border in November of 1994," recounts Jane Maxwell, chief of research for the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and a member of the NIDA work group. "It was mentioned in some written testimony from someone talking about problems with kids on the border -- totally misspelled -- but because we'd been to these meetings I realized what they were referring to. It turned out they were buying them in Mexico and bringing them across. I reported on it to the work group meeting in December."

That month Hall and Maxwell helped form the Texas-Florida Rohypnol Response Group to exchange information and work on prevention strategies. "Our agency magazine did an alert in January [1995], and that's when the phones really started ringing," Maxwell recalls. "To give you an example of how quickly it spread, I got a call from the dean of students at Southwest Texas State [hundreds of miles north of the border] saying they found it for the first time on a student who'd gone to Mexico for a holiday. That was in early March; by the end of spring break it was all over the school."

Later in 1995 Hall went to Minnesota to speak at rural drug-prevention seminars and found that even small-town public-health workers had been seeing kids on roofies but hadn't recognized the drug. "In Minnesota we were literally able to trace the migrant farmworker route out of Mexico," Hall says, "and in seven hours we found where you could buy roofies in front of a Wal-Mart." Another researcher looked at a stack of U.S. Customs declaration forms in Laredo, Texas, and found that a million roofies had legally crossed a single border bridge during 1995. (Before Customs banned its importation, a 90-day supply of Rohypnol could be brought into the country for personal medical use.)

In December 1995 Hall testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on juvenile drug abuse. Among other things, he urged support for efforts to increase penalties for possession of drugs like Rohypnol that had recognized medical uses but a high probability of abuse. Committee chairman Orrin Hatch apparently wasn't convinced that Rohypnol should be treated differently from other prescription sedatives like Valium or Librium, also often abused. "But [those drugs] haven't been actively marketed or diverted out of the legitimate system as Rohypnol has," Hall politely argued. Or, he added, targeted to children's limited budgets. A hundred roofies cost much less than an ounce of marijuana and could be resold at a high profit, thus earning enough to then buy the marijuana, too. "This is a lunch-money drug," he went on. "It's also a gateway to polydrug abuse. We call this pattern of selling to children 'kiddie-narco.'"

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