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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
From Crack to Ecstasy in New York
crack user
Crack has ravaged areas of New York
By Jane Hughes in New York

You don't have to go very far from the familiar scenes of Manhattan - just a few miles north of the Empire State Building, and still within sight of the Statue of Liberty - to see the evidence of what drugs have done to New York.

This may be the place where crime has fallen more than 70%, and one where millions of visitors now flock every year.

New York may be the new, safe, clean "Big Apple", but it's still a city blighted by the impact of Crack cocaine.

The braver tourist does now venture north of Central Park to Harlem, but he or she gives a wide berth to the graffiti-stained Crack-houses that stand out like rotten, blackened teeth in an otherwise gleaming row of renovated apartment buildings.

These are the places where drug dealers still rule the roost, despite aggressive police efforts to drive them out.

Drug-fuelled crime wave

Here youngsters as young as 12 descend into a sinkhole-like spiral of drug taking: the high from smoking Crack, which leads to a desperate, craving low, and to a frantic quest for another high, purchased any way they can, even if that means robbery and violence.

Drug facts
New York has 22,300 drug offenders in its jails

The city charged 40,000 people with drug offences in 1998

US customs have seized 5.5 million ecstasy tablets so far this year
This is the spiral which propelled crime in New York to unheard of highs a decade ago; murders here topped 2,000 a year for a while.

Gangs fighting for drug turf killed rivals in unprecedented numbers.

It took the police several years to begin to regain control.

But though there are now 22,300 drug offenders incarcerated in New York jails, and though Crack cocaine is partly being replaced as the drug of choice on the streets of the city by heroin, which leaves users placid, and less prone to commit crimes, no-one is pretending that the problems are solved.
Harlem still has its no-go areas

Almost 40,000 people were charged with drug-related offences in New York City in 1998, the last year for which statistics are available.

That figure has remained almost steady for the last five years. With three airports in the area immediately around the city, the city is a perfect hub for traffickers.

New problems

While legislators continue to wrestle with questions of how to reduce the figures, new drugs are now entering the equation.

Ecstasy, the club drug that caused such panic in the 1990s is making a comeback here as a feel-good drug for youngsters who've been scared off cocaine, speed and heroin.
An Ecstasy pill, seized last year en-route for New York

Now it's not only being taken on the dance floor, but in school toilets and teenagers' bedrooms, by youngsters wanting to get in on the latest trend.

Eighteen-year-old "Karen," as she wants to be called, regularly skips lessons and sneaks into the park opposite her school with her friends to take a tab of Ecstasy.

They say the drug makes the day pass more quickly.

"The cliques are pretty big in my school," she says, "and every clique does it."

People in criminal elements are realising you can make a lot of money from dealing in Ecstasy

Dean Boyd, US Customs spokesman

US customs officers say they've seized 5.5 million Ecstasy tablets so far this year, compared with less than half a million in 1997, rising to 3.5 million last year.

"It's just phenomenal," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for
US Customs.

"There is increasing demand here, but it's also because people in criminal elements are realising you can make a lot of money from dealing in Ecstasy."

Dealers are attracted by the easy availability of the drug, and the fact that penalties are less harsh than they are for pushing cocaine or heroin.

It's also easy to produce, with recipes available on the internet, and it's relatively simple to deliver the finished product.

Long term fears

There are dire predictions from some that the Ecstasy problem will eclipse the Crack cocaine problem that reached its peak in the late 1980s.

If it does, the consequences won't be the same.

This is not a drug whose distribution is controlled by gangs. It sells more to wealthy suburban youngsters than to inner city kids, and it doesn't leave users violently craving another high, even if that means resorting to crime, as Crack cocaine does.

But the long-term health damage done by "E" is only beginning to become apparent.

And with Crack still ravaging areas of New York, drug enforcers are beginning to ask themselves what kind of new problems this latest drug epidemic will bring them.

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