Hard Rock : Crystallized Cocaine, the Poor Man’s High, Grips a Richer, Growing Clientele

Times Staff Writer

Rock cocaine, once considered a low-income high, has moved out of the Los Angeles ghettos and into the South Bay, where law enforcement and drug treatment officials say its use has reached epidemic proportions.

Police reports and treatment center admissions indicate that increasing numbers of people from Playa del Rey to Palos Verdes and just about everywhere in between are smoking rock cocaine, a highly concentrated, extremely addictive pellet form of the drug that usually is smoked in glass pipes, not snorted through the nostrils.

Almost 75% of all narcotics arrests in the South Bay today involve the drug, police say. A year ago, they say, it rarely surfaced in suburban communities.

And along with the drug’s increased use have come accessory problems: prostitution, burglary, broken families and ruined lives.


Rock cocaine use cuts across race, social and economic strata like no other drug before it, officials say. Police and drug counselors tell of teen-agers becoming prostitutes to buy the drug, and of businessmen burglarizing homes and cars to get money for a quick fix.

Horror stories about the drug spreading to the middle class are starting to appear in Newsweek and other national magazines. The National Cocaine Hotline says rock cocaine is widely used in 17 American cities, though nowhere is it more prevalent than in Los Angeles County, where it first surfaced more than five years ago.

Local law enforcement officials say that in nearly every city in the South Bay, the use and sale of rock cocaine has doubled in the past year.

In Inglewood, for example, almost 90% of all drug arrests are rock-cocaine related, police officials said. Inglewood police have seized three times as much cocaine during the first six months of this year as they did during the same period last year.


Drug-Use Detection

In El Segundo, police say several industrial and aerospace firms have hired private investigators to help ferret out drug users, and the Police Department this year started offering classes to teach businesses how to identify the signs of on-the-job drug abuse.

In Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach, sale of the drug appears to be minimal, but use is on the rise, police said. Manhattan Beach police have seen a 50% jump in the number of bad checks passed in the city--more than half of them written by people who later say they have cocaine problems.

According to Hermosa Beach Detective Patrick Waters, “Hermosa has gotten a reputation as a place to buy and smoke the drug in the last year.


“We don’t have a visible problem with dealers selling drugs on the street, but this new drug could create some new problems. We don’t see it, but our informants tell police that coke, particularly rock cocaine, is a growing problem here in the city.”

Police and school officials throughout the South Bay are grappling with a growing number of dealers who seem to have an endless supply of cocaine. Federal officials cite an estimated 500% increase in the amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States in the past two years, some of it from nearby Mexico.

“A lot of the small-time marijuana dealers that used to smuggle their stuff in from Mexico are switching over to selling cocaine because it so much more profitable,” said Sgt. Dale Pierce of the Gardena Police Department’s special investigations division.

Officials from the National Cocaine Hotline estimate that 5,000 people a day will try rock cocaine for the first time, and half of those will become addicted. The hot line (1-800-COCAINE) offers help to users and others whose lives are affected by the drug.


In one way or another, rock cocaine is going to touch everyone’s life, said Dr. Gerald Rozansky, director of the Inglewood-based Centinela Hospital Lifestarts program for treating chemical dependency.

“People seem to think that rock cocaine abuse is limited to the slums--not so,” Rozansky said. “Chances are some of your neighbors and co-workers are getting high on this stuff. And whether it ruins a friend’s or loved one’s life, or causes an addict to steal your belongings for rock money, it’s going to reach out and touch all of us like a plague.”

Called Rock Crack, Jumbo

Rock cocaine, which was first observed in South-Central Los Angeles around 1981, is made by heating a mixture of powdered cocaine, baking soda and water and then pouring the concoction into molds for drying. The crystals are then broken into gravel-sized chips known as rock crack or jumbo.


At $15 to $25 a pebble, which is enough for one or two highs, rock cocaine provides a powerful-yet-affordable high that has held a wrenching grip on low-income neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

As cocaine use increased, so did reports of burglaries, car break-ins and purse snatchings in areas where the drug was popular. But no longer are rock-related crimes confined to those areas. Cities from Inglewood to Palos Verdes Estates have reported an 8% to 15% increase in burglaries and purse snatchings last year. Although police officials cannot link all of the increase specifically to rock cocaine, most suspect it is a factor.

Police and area drug treatment centers give these examples:

- In ritzy Palos Verdes Estates, a teen-ager staged a phony burglary at his parent’s home after pawning the family’s valuables for cocaine money.


- A Manhattan Beach real estate agent who spent $25,000 on rock pellets in less than six months started stealing car stereos to support his habit after losing his family, home and job.

- A Torrance housewife becomes a cocaine prostitute after she was fired from her part-time job for stealing cocaine money.

- An Inglewood couple with three children and a $500-a-week habit stole a 79-year-old woman’s purse at a grocery store, and then rushed to an area “rock house” where they were arrested by police.

“These are people who are committing crimes who would not be criminals under ordinary circumstances,” Rozansky said.


Unlike heroin, which spawns a physical addiction complete with wrenching physical symptoms during withdrawal, rock cocaine’s euphoric high produces a largely psychological dependency, but an extremely powerful one.

Rock cocaine users, even those who smoke only occasionally, can find themselves dependent on the drug in as little as four weeks, while it usually takes from one to two years to become so addicted to powdered cocaine, Rozansky said.

Depression Follows High

Smoked instead of snorted, rock cocaine reaches the brain in about three seconds and produces a euphoric 5- to 10-minute high, followed by a crushing depression that leaves the user craving more.


“It’s the most addictive substance around,” Rozansky said. “The rush is so intense and psychologically addicting that shortly after the first hit, users are already contemplating how to get another one.”

In a compulsive state called being “sparked,” users will do almost anything for another hit of cocaine, officials say.

“This drug is more dangerous to society than people realize,” said Lt. James Butts, who heads the Inglewood Police Department’s undercover narcotics task force.

More Seeking Treatment


A check of South Bay chemical dependency treatment centers indicates that there has been a 200% increase in the number of cocaine addicts seeking in-patient treatment in the past year, and a 50% increase in outpatient counseling.

For example, Charter Pacific Hospital in Torrance has treated 140 in-patients for cocaine abuse in the past year, compared to 40 the year before.

Officials say, however, that estimate does not mirror the actual rise in rock cocaine use because hundreds of addicts cannot afford or will not agree to treatment. Police and sheriff’s deputies estimate that thousands of cocaine users who cannot afford in-patient treatment programs, which cost between $5,000 and $17,000, will wind up homeless and living on the streets.

“This drug is going to rip society apart the way it is going now,” Butts said. “Just look at the neighborhoods where they sell it. You see decent residents afraid to leave their homes and homeless children sleeping in cars and garages because the rock has got a hold on their parents,” Butts said, referring to Inglewood’s Dixon-Darby/Lockhaven neighborhood where drug sales soared until the Police Department set up an undercover task force to crack down on them.


Drug-Dealing Reputation

Police and city officials started the task force in May to shake what they saw as the city’s growing reputation for being an easy place to buy and sell drugs. But four weeks and more than 400 arrests later, city officials are just beginning to realize the magnitude of the city’s problem.

“We are finding that people from all over the county and beyond are coming here to buy their drugs,” Butts said.

More than 75% of the buyers arrested during the recent crackdown live outside the city, leading police to believe that Inglewood has become the heart of the South Bay’s rock cocaine trade.


“Rock cocaine has reached out to all kinds of communities but it is still produced and sold in lower-income areas,” Butts said.

“Though Inglewood is a largely middle-class community, the city’s drug centers attract a lot of professionals and more affluent rock heads because of Lakers games and other events at the Forum, and because of the city’s proximity to the (San Diego and Harbor) freeways. But I think the real hook is that people feel safer (buying) here than they do in other areas, like South-Central Los Angeles.”

Easy as Buying Hamburgers

In recent months, police officials say pockets of Inglewood have become “stop and cop” drug marts where buying rock cocaine is as easy as buying hamburgers from a drive-through restaurant. Dealers, who at first set up in fortified rock houses where users could buy and smoke cocaine, took to the streets when police raided and closed down their modern-day opium dens.


Rock cocaine dealers thrived on the streets, police say. Small-time drug pushers, many still in their teens, could make as much as $1,500 a day.

So plentiful were the buyers that dealers often employed small children to run back and forth from their headquarters to keep up with demand, police said.

The street dealers at times seemed oblivious to police or residents. Earlier this year police confiscated a portable stop sign from a group of street dealers who had stolen the sign from a construction site and were using it to hail cars traveling along Hyde Park Boulevard. Across town in the Dixon-Darby/Lockhaven area, officers in a patrol car stumbled upon a trash can slalom course that dealers had set up to slow down traffic and give them better opportunities to sell drugs.

Like Forum Parking Lot


“Friday nights in the Dixon-Darby and Hyde Park areas used to look like the parking lot at the Forum,” said Inglewood Police Sgt. Ron Wood.

“They wouldn’t want people selling drugs in their neighborhood, but they have no qualms about coming here and buying cocaine on someone’s front lawn,” Wood said.

Street cocaine sales, not only in Inglewood but in some neighborhoods of Gardena, Lennox and Wilmington, have residents feeling under siege.

“Before that task force started chasing dealers off the street, I used to come home from work and stay locked up in my house until it was time to leave in the morning,” said Janice Flowers, who lives in an apartment in the Lockhaven neighborhood.


The task force--which numbers 30 to 40 officers out of a total Inglewood force of 182--has been extremely successful, officials say. Traffic through the city’s drug marts has slowed to a trickle and the corners that street dealers used to frequent are almost empty. Undercover officers hiding in bushes and staked out in apartments have made hundreds of arrests and have seized a dozen weapons and almost $250,000 worth of cocaine.

Getting the Message

“We are coming at them from all over the place so they fully understand that Inglewood is not the place to buy or sell drugs,” Butts said.

But police in other South Bay cities fear that Inglewood may just pass on the headache by chasing the buyers and dealers out of that city. Sheriff’s deputies in Lennox, an area they say already has a significant drug trade, expect to see more dealers who are afraid to do business in Inglewood.


Officials expect that some of the dealers may flee to areas in Carson, Wilmington and Torrance where police are already battling street dealers selling heroin.

“The dealers operate by the laws of supply and demand,” said Sgt. Bob Sobel, head of the Lennox substation’s narcotics crew. “They are not going to stop selling cocaine just because they can’t do it in Inglewood. Believe me, those dealers are going to find somewhere to sell and I have a feeling that just about every (city) is going to see a few new faces in town.”