Dope Detective

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

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."

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.'"

Ten months later Congress passed a law that essentially made roofies weapons. The Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996 mandates up to an additional twenty years in prison for anyone convicted of using Rohypnol or other knockout drugs in the commission of a violent crime. In the days before the congressional vote, Phil Diaz, former director of drug abuse prevention policy for the Bush administration and now a consultant in Miami, was working in Saskatchewan, Canada. "I remember turning on CNN, and there was Jim Hall talking about roofies," Diaz recalls. "I thought, there's Miami taking the lead again. Jim was one of the first people in the country to spot abuse of roofies among young adults back when nobody was seeing it. The feds are usually behind the curve. Just when the DEA schedules one drug, the labs make another, or people find a way to abuse a legitimate drug, so you have that problem constantly, where people are misusing drugs. It's folks like Jim and organizations like Up Front -- which are terribly underfunded -- that give us the epidemic at the front end, when we can do something about it."

At about the same time last year that U.S. Customs banned roofie importation, efforts in Tallahassee to persuade the state legislature to reclassify Rohypnol as a schedule-one drug (possession and trafficking, as with heroin, carrying the harshest possible penalties) were unsuccessful, largely owing to lobbying by its Swiss manufacturer, Hoffman-LaRoche. But Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued an administrative rule temporarily decreeing Rohypnol to be a schedule-one substance; this past March the lobbyists retreated and the legislature made the rule a law.

Speaking on national television and remonstrating with senators was probably not what Jim Hall's high school classmates in Silver Spring, Maryland, thought he'd wind up doing. The younger of two sons of a Methodist minister, Hall studied history at a solid Methodist school, West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, West Virginia. After receiving his B.A. in 1966, he found a job teaching social studies to seventh through twelfth graders in Frederick County, Maryland. During the summers, he took graduate courses at the University of Dayton and Indiana University. Despite his long hair, in the style of the times, Hall says he knew little about drugs. "I'd seen alcohol, of course, and I knew people were taking diet pills so they could stay up and get their term papers done." That, however, was about the extent of his familiarity with the many mind-altering possibilities in the Sixties. His introduction to the world of illegal drugs came when the school principal chose him to present a new "drug curriculum" to his students. "I remember getting the film strip out of the box and putting it on the projector, putting a record on -- it had all this psychedelic stuff. It was some of the earliest modern drug education in a period when probably more college-age students than high school students were getting involved. I guess that was kind of like the first time I realized this field existed."

In 1970, after four years of teaching, Hall left the classroom to become the national director of a college fraternity, Theta Xi, a job that took him to more than 200 campuses per year. His interest was in management, not really in social issues, but he recalls being impressed with the great changes that had occurred on college campuses during the years he'd been away and that continued while he was with the fraternity, until 1978. That year his brother persuaded him to move to the remote coal-mining country of Matewan, West Virginia, to manage three mines he was opening. After two years Hall was ready to leave the isolation of the Appalachians. He moved to Washington, D.C., about the time Ronald Reagan became president. "I wanted to go back into association management," he recalls. "I was in Washington, the association capital of the world. I was interested in getting more public policy focus, and one of the jobs that was available was working with a drug policy group."

Hall's new employer was a foundation whose staff generally favored liberalizing drug laws, he says. He wasn't especially conservative, but his co-workers were definitely more left-leaning. "I think probably they hired me," he recalls, "because they thought I would fit well with the Reagan administration in my three-piece suit."

After a year with the foundation, Hall had become quite interested in drug policy and quite disillusioned with how it worked in real life. "It was an area in which I saw great ambivalence and lack of understanding," he says. "Many people had ideas based more on ideology than reality."

That was when Hall read "Paradise Lost," a 1981 Time magazine cover story about Miami in the wake of the notorious Dadeland shootout among cocaine traffickers, an incident that revealed the spectacular extent of the drug trade in Dade and its destructive effects on life in paradise.

The soft-spoken Hall quit his job in early 1982 and took his three-piece suits to Miami. "The War on Drugs was starting, and in wartime it's best to go to the front lines," he explains. "I think my family background gave me the sense of wanting to do something about a complex issue that seemed to baffle everyone." The first time he opened the Miami Herald classified section he saw an ad seeking an executive director for the Up Front Drug Information Center. The organization, founded in 1973 by attorney Tracy Brown, was then basically a reading room in Coconut Grove. The director at the time, University of Miami anthropologist Pat Morningstar, was leaving, and Up Front's federal funding was not certain beyond one year. Hall was hired by the board of directors with a mandate "to keep the organization alive for another year." He has been able since then to maintain Up Front's principal source of funding from the state agency then called Health and Rehabilitative Services (now the Department of Children and Families) and to supplement that with contracts for writing reports and manuals and holding classes and workshops.

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.

"Another part of reefer sadness," he says, "is we're now going to be stuck in this big issue of the medical benefits [of marijuana]." Hall's simple solution: Put the medically beneficial cannabis chemicals into a suppository and forget about smoking the leaves.

Hall doesn't think drugs, including alcohol, can be used just for fun. "I really don't use the term 'recreational drug,'" he says. "I think it's kind of misleading. Drugs are not a game, nor do they usually refresh. Some drugs can medically aid people, but generally, smoking a joint isn't all that different from having a drink. In terms of potential for addiction, it's there for both. Use is not always abuse, but without use there can't be abuse.

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