Cocaine Town 

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

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PROJECT MANAGEMENT: The demolition of Atlanta Public Housing facilities contributed to a change in the nature of drug sales. - JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • PROJECT MANAGEMENT: The demolition of Atlanta Public Housing facilities contributed to a change in the nature of drug sales.

Crime and drug use down, not out

In 2012, it's required by the doctrine of giving-credit-where-it's-due that any discussion about crime or other illicit activities be prefaced by the acknowledgement that, yes, crime is down. That's pretty much the case nationwide. Preliminary crime stats released by the Atlanta Police Department indicate that, citywide, overall crime decreased 1 percent in 2011 from the previous year, even though there were more rapes — a lot more, in fact — as well as more robberies, larcenies, and auto thefts.

So, all in all, it would appear fewer people are committing crimes. What the ADAM report does, though, is offer insight into the people who are still offending.

Per the study's methodology, ADAM researchers spent two weeks in Atlanta in 2010 — one week in the Atlanta City jail, the other in the Fulton County jail — performing urinalyses and asking questions of inmates who were booked no more than 48 hours earlier. Besides substance abuse data, researchers compiled sociological and economic stats about each inmate: a racial breakdown, his employment status, current living arrangement, and age. Apart from Washington, D.C., where 88.1 percent of the inmates booked during the study period were African-American versus 7 percent white, Atlanta had the starkest racial disparity among arrestees, with 82.7 percent of the inmates booked being of African-American descent, 12.8 percent white, and 7 percent Hispanic. Other interesting figures in the report include that upward of 35 percent of inmates reported having no education, nearly half — 49.6 percent — were actually gainfully employed, and their mean age is perhaps older than you'd imagine at 35.

And as far as the drug data's concerned, all the news wasn't necessarily bad news.

As of 2009, Atlanta was the only city where cocaine was the drug most often found in inmates' systems. In 2010, marijuana actually replaced cocaine as the drug-of-choice among arrestees, allowing Atlanta to join the rest of the study cities in that respect. And it wasn't because marijuana use increased in Atlanta, but because cocaine use decreased (it's steadily decreased since 2007, as it has most places). Still, Atlanta managed to hold strong as the cocaine capital among ADAM sites, proving it's still the drug of choice for those committing (or at least being arrested for committing) crimes.

Percent of arrestees testing positive for either crack or powder cocaine (2010); Percent of arrestees who admitted to acquiring crack cocaine in the past 30 days (2010) - STAFF ILLUSTRATION
  • Staff Illustration
  • Percent of arrestees testing positive for either crack or powder cocaine (2010); Percent of arrestees who admitted to acquiring crack cocaine in the past 30 days (2010)

Traffic center for cocaine

Last week, one of Big Boi's Twitter followers wanted to know, "Why they gotta make niggas be drug bosses in movies like ATL?" The OutKast frontman's response: "Cause niggas in Atlanta sell Dope nigga." Not, perhaps, the most eloquent way to elucidate of the city's less-than-illustrious position as a thriving center for the sale and purchase of drugs.

But the story of cocaine in Atlanta begins well before an inmate is booked into jail. It begins well before said inmate purchases it in crack form on the street, stuffs it into a little glass tube, and then carjacks you. It begins even before the guy he bought it from bought it from someone else, mixed it with baking soda, and cooked it up on the stove.

John Horn, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, explains: "There's sort of a local side to the picture, and sort of a wholesale or a more national component to the Atlanta drug trade." His office doesn't deal much with street-level sales or consumption, rather large, multistate drug trafficking operations. "[The drugs on the street] are coming from the same people, but three or four levels below," Horn says. "What we focus on is the high-level — and it's almost 99 percent Mexican [cocaine]."

Here's a condensed version of how, in recent years, Atlanta became a "hub" for the distribution of Mexican cocaine: In the '80s and '90s, most of the cocaine coming into the U.S. was coming through Miami from Colombia. The Mexican drug lords wanted in on the action, so they offered to become middlemen. The Colombians were like, "Well, yeah, obviously." Anyway, that's when it started coming through Texas on tractor-trailers, and the big Mexican cartels — the Gulf Coast Cartel and, later, the Sinaloa Cartel — formed. Around the mid-2000s, Mexican middlemen began to set up stash houses in and around Atlanta — in Gwinnett County, in particular — where cocaine is brought by truck, unloaded, packaged, and then moved to other cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit. Then the cash proceeds from the drug sales come back to Atlanta to be packaged before they're sent back down to Texas.

Even though the vast majority of the cocaine that comes to Atlanta will someday be shipped elsewhere, Horn points out that "some of the stuff trickles down to street-level distributors."

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