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Cocaine Town

One in three men arrested in Atlanta has cocaine in his system. And that's an improvement.

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Lieutenant Michael O'Connor acknowledges that when he joined the Atlanta Police Department, he didn't know quite what he was walking into. "I was in Panama City at the time, couldn't find a job in Florida, and Atlanta was hiring for the Olympics," he recalls. "I didn't put any thought into the crime rate — I just wanted to be a cop and they were hiring."

It was 1996. Most of the city's public housing communities were still operational, the murder rate was 79 percent higher than last year's, and crack was king. O'Connor recalls people standing on street corners, wantonly holding what they called "bombs," or large amounts of crack rocks, in their pockets, jut waiting for the next customer to stroll by. When asked about the current cocaine problem in Atlanta, O'Connor — who was recently promoted to commander of the narcotics unit — reflexively compares it to the drug's heyday. "Well, when I joined, it was a huge problem," O'Connor says. "[All crime] seems to be tied to this open-air drug trade. That's not the case anymore."

"Not to say we don't have a drug problem," he continues, "but not near the problem we had when I first joined the force."

O'Connor's take is completely understandable given the city's history and his 15-plus years of experience. But the extent of Atlanta's drug problem is still alarming.

But every year, data collectors with the Office of National Drug Control Policy spend a couple weeks in detention facilities in 10 U.S. cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Ore., Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. — drug testing and surveying inmates as they're booked. It's called the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (known as ADAM II), and it's intended to "provide policymakers with critical data" about a group of potential drug users the ONDCP says are underrepresented in other studies: men at their point of entry into the criminal justice system. The supposition is that many who commit crimes do so while under the influence of drugs, or, conversely, that lots of the people who abuse drugs wind up committing crimes.

Not surprisingly, it's a pretty astute assumption.

Breakdown of what drugs male arrestees in Atlanta tested positive for (2010) - STAFF ILLUSTRATION
  • Staff Illustration
  • Breakdown of what drugs male arrestees in Atlanta tested positive for (2010)

According to ADAM's 2010 report [PDF], released just a few months ago, 66 percent of the men booked into Atlanta's jails during the study period had drugs in their systems. That percentage was higher in several other cities; for instance, in Chicago, where more than 80 percent of arrestees were found to have drugs in their systems. (Atlanta was also beat out by Charlotte, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, and Sacramento.) But the ATL stands out in terms of the use and abuse of a particular drug: cocaine. More than 33 percent of Atlanta's male arrestees — more than in any other city — were under the influence of cocaine when they were booked. In the majority of those cases, the inmates reported they'd smoked crack.

Generally, the consensus among local and national law enforcement agencies is that Atlanta's coke-crack problem pales in comparison to what it was in the '80s and '90s, as O'Connor noted. As recently as 2000, ADAM's research showed that nearly half of all Atlanta's arrestees had cocaine in their systems. Technically, then, one-in-three is an improvement. Still, O'Connor calls Atlanta one of "the last of the cocaine holdouts in the urban Southeast." And when drugs are so irrevocably linked to crime — and police link cocaine use and sales, in particular, to violent and property crime — law enforcement has a stake in figuring out why a third of the people arrested here have it coursing through their veins (and through their bladders, as it were). Compared to other cities, why does Atlanta continue to be Cocaine Town, U.S.A.?

The ADAM study certainly has its limitations. For instance, arrestees in Los Angeles weren't included in the research, nor arrestees in any cities in Texas. Still, it paints a picture of a city with a unique drug problem, one that began when Atlanta became a full-fledged trafficking hub.

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