Dope Detective

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

Even before he was hired, Hall says, he told Up Front's board of directors about his goal of making Up Front an independent, unbiased, and comprehensive source of information. "The drug issue was so polarized," he explains, "that nobody believed anyone."

Through the early and mid-Eighties, Miami Vice was making Miami famous as the glitzy, violent cocaine capital of the world. The powder was so plentiful that its residue contaminated vast quantities of circulating currency. But then, starting in 1983, Hall began hearing several variations on a disturbing new theme: smoking coke. Not freebasing (the expensive and dangerous method of transforming pure cocaine into a vapor), but smoking cheap forms of the stuff, such as coca paste cooked with high-proof rum and baking soda -- an early prototype of what would eventually become known as crack. "We knew something was going on with smoking cocaine," Hall says, "because we knew the people who were smoking it couldn't afford [the powdered form]."

By 1985 Hall and other researchers across the country were alarmed at the deplorable inroads the new cheap cocaine was making in poor urban neighborhoods, but the news media generally ignored their warnings. It was only after mid-1986, when the Boston Celtics' star draftee Len Bias died after smoking crack, that the nation learned the drug was destroying thousands of lives.

At the height of the crack epidemic, around 1988, many community leaders in hard-hit Miami began to think that anti-drug programs specifically geared to local populations would work better than DEA directives. "Up to that point everything had been national or federal strategy," Hall recounts. "That was the beginning of the [Miami] Coalition, which works on local strategies as part of the overall effort. At that time my sound bite was 'The war on drugs will be won on the home front.' While the world thought we were the source of the problem, we were also the source of the solutions. Even at that time we had some of the best treatment programs in the nation. We were responding as a community to the devastating situation around us."

"Jim started out as probably our best source of information when the coalition first came into existence," says Marilyn Culp, executive director of the high-powered alliance of corporate and public-sector representatives that is considered a national model for community anti-drug outreach. "As the years went on and we grew as a coalition, we needed to respond more rapidly when we begin to see signs of a drug coming into the community -- so it doesn't become an epidemic, like crack cocaine was. Jim becomes that link for us in terms of surveillance."

Almost a quarter of Up Front's $170,000 annual budget is supplied by its contract with the coalition. The main part of the budget, however, comes from a federal block grant administered through the Florida Department of Children and Families. Hall still lectures around the world and writes reports and manuals, although less often than before he joined the coalition.

In 1984 Up Front moved to its current office on Biscayne Boulevard, in the Morningside neighborhood. The spacious rooms on the ninth floor of an ungainly concrete apartment building, converted into offices, have a spectacular eastern view of Biscayne Bay and a less scenic western view of crackhouses and hourly motels. The space is filled with desks, phones, computers, and row after row of metal filing cabinets holding pre-electronic database materials (more recent information is mostly computerized).

The coalition and Hall say their main concern now is stunting the growth in Dade of heroin, methamphetamine, and GHB (gamma-hydroxy butyrate). GHB, a sedative easily concocted at home from common chemicals and often mixed with alcohol, is a new and fast-growing problem drug in the wake of restrictions on Rohypnol, Hall states in his June 1997 report to the NIDA work group. He also discusses the newly popular "five-way" fad among young heroin users who snort a line each of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ground-up Rohypnol, and then drink alcohol.

But an old drug -- an ancient drug, and the favorite of his generation -- is coming under new scrutiny from Hall. "Welcome to the age of reefer sadness," he declares. "There's a lot of misinformation about marijuana in the Nineties. We have attitudes from different generations that are really talking about different drugs." He pulls his laptop computer from the maroon bag he always carries with him, from the Up Front offices to the coalition offices to meetings at Metro-Dade government center. In that little laptop Hall has stored graphs and charts and statistics, including new figures that show marijuana to be a factor in more than twice as many hospital emergency room crises in Dade than nationally; people having those emergencies are getting younger, too, he finds. The highest percentage of male arrestees testing positive for pot was in the fifteen-to-twenty age group. Street availability of marijuana is at an all-time high, according to the 1996 Florida Drug Law Enforcement Survey.

Hall closes the laptop, places the fingers of his right hand at his temple, and frowns mildly. "Adolescents and even preadolescents are more into drugs in 1997 than they were in 1990," he says. Among the many and complex reasons, he adds, is that their parents, having come of age in the Sixties and Seventies, may not think drugs are a problem or may have mixed feelings about forbidding their children to do what they did -- or still do. But the joint of today is almost certain to be many times more potent than the herb of the hippies, which makes it more a health and addiction risk. "The number-one sadness about marijuana," he goes on, "is that it's almost always smoked. While most Americans are ready to accept the facts about the hazards of tobacco, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that smoking any plant material is carcinogenic. The key carcinogenic link to lung cancer in tobacco is also found in higher quantities in a marijuana cigarette.

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