Thursday, December 31, 2009

L.A. Gangs Seek Profit In Peace

The Wall Street Journal

LOS ANGELES -- After nearly two decades fighting gangs, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Detective Robert Lyons thought he had seen it all. Until he saw members of the Bloods and the Crips -- rival gangs that spent years in brutal conflict -- meeting amiably in a restaurant.

"They were talking. There was hugging and high-fiving. It was unbelievable," Mr. Lyons said. He has heard a refrain from gang members: Red (the Bloods) and blue (the Crips) make green (money).

Gangs that were once bloody rivals now are cooperating to wring profits from the sale of illegal drugs and weapons, law-enforcement officials and gang experts say. In some cases, gangs that investigators believed to be sworn enemies share neighborhoods and strike business deals. The collaboration even crosses racial lines, remarkable in a gang world where racial divisions are sharp and clashes are often racially motivated.

"You see African-Americans dealing with Hispanics on obtaining narcotics and weapons. We're seeing Hispanic gang members involved with the Eastern European criminal figures," said Robert W. Clark, acting special agent in charge of the criminal division of the Los Angeles field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Where they see opportunities to collaborate, they do."

Gang activity has been one of the most intractable crime problems facing Southern California for decades, terrorizing communities, claiming hundreds of lives a year in some periods and also breeding a nexus of criminal activity that has been exported to other communities. Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has long been considered one of the centers of gang activity in the U.S.

But gang-related violence is at a 30-year low in Los Angeles, according to experts. Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles totaled 128 in through October of this year, compared with 312 in all of 2002. All reported gang-related crimes, including rape, assault and robberies, totaled 4,899 through October, compared with 7,432 in 2002.

The sharp drop is undoubtedly a landmark success for law-enforcement officials and policy makers, who have used aggressive policing and rehabilitation programs to tackle the problem. But the reports of alliances between formerly warring gangs potentially offers a different explanation: Gangs are committing less violence because they are partnering on criminal activity, creating new challenges for law enforcement.

"Now, instead of having 200 guys that are arch-enemies with 200 other guys, you have 400 guys working together against law enforcement," said the sheriff's detective, Mr. Lyons.

There are still plenty of rivalries and violence. One Los Angeles-area Latino gang, Barrio Hawaiian Gardens, was charged this spring with hate crimes against African-Americans -- including targeted shootings.

Tracking the number of gang members is notoriously tricky, and membership is fluid. But a November report from the California Gang Node Advisory Committee, which attempts to track gang membership, put the number of gang members at 85,832 in Los Angeles County, up slightly from recent years.

And the number of gang members has been on the upswing nationally. There were about one million gang members in the U.S. in 2008, up from 800,000 in 2005, according to the National Gang Threat Assessment, compiled by the National Gang Intelligence Center and the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Some regions of the country -- like New England, with 640 gangs -- are seeing an increase in violence and substance abuse as gangs grow and fight for control of neighborhoods and the drug trade, the report said. But there is cohesion in other regions, like Washington and Oregon, where "alliances between gangs may result in the expansion of criminal networks and increased criminal activity in the Northwest Region," the report says.

In Los Angeles, federal and local law-enforcement agencies have launched massive investigations and raids against gangs. In 2009, law-enforcement officials arrested more than 650 gang members in Southern California, according to the FBI.

City officials also credit gang-prevention and rehabilitation programs for the drop in crime. Gang intervention workers -- often former gang members -- work alongside police to prevent retaliatory shootings. Homeboy Industries, a privately funded gang-rehabilitation program in Los Angeles, serves around 12,000 people a year who have left gangs, providing job training, counseling and laser tattoo removal. And the mayor's office has sponsored activities like basketball games and picnics among neighborhoods that are home to feuding gangs.

But intensifying pressure from police has also prompted gangs to work together, said Jorja Leap, a University of California, Los Angeles professor and gang expert. "They really are united against what they perceive to be a common enemy -- law enforcement," said Ms. Leap, who now advises Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca on gangs.

Ms. Leap said gangs form links to survive -- and to maximize profits. "The market is tougher and they're consolidating," she said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said gangs are "treating their activities more like businesses than before. In business, you work with whoever you have to."

This collaboration can make tracking gang crime and dismantling gangs more complicated. Members of street gangs are showing up unexpectedly in health-care and credit-card fraud investigations, which have traditionally been run by Eastern European crime rings.

During a two-year investigation of the Athens Park Bloods, an African-American gang entrenched in south Los Angeles, investigators learned the members had formed a pact with a Hispanic gang called Barrio 13. Eventually, 22 people were charged -- 20 African-Americans and two Hispanics.

"They shared the same guns, the same narcotics, the same neighborhood," said Mr. Lyons, the sheriff's detective.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cocaine Chic Linked To Rise In Young Addicts

London Times Online

The number of children being treated for cocaine addiction has nearly doubled in four years, NHS figures show, with the drug’s “glamorous” image being blamed for the rise.

Young adults are increasingly requiring treatment for addiction to cocaine, often after developing a habit in their teens or twenties.

Last year 745 under-18s in England sought help from the National Treatment Agency after abusing the Class A drug, up from 453 in 2005-06.

Among those reporting addictions last year was a small group of very young children, including at least 15 children who were under 12, the latest figures show. Fourteen children aged 12 to 14 and 169 children aged between 14 and 16 also needed help to stop using cocaine, although fewer teenagers were seeking treatment for crack and heroin dependencies.

Experts said that children who started to use Class A drugs so young were likely to be using them as a “coping mechanism” to hide other problems, copying parents or other family members who were already abusing the substances.

Overall, nearly 24,053 under 18s needed addiction treatment for misusing illegal drugs and alcohol last year, 150 more than the total three years ago.

The number of individuals treated for cannabis was 12,642 and alcohol 8,799, accounting for almost nine out of 10 of all young people receiving support last year.

Last year the agency treated 657 crack and heroin users who were under 18, down from 1,081 in 2005-06.

Three quarters of young people treated had psychosocial therapies such as counselling, but others required support for the breakdown of family relationships, poor school attendance or emotional and physical harms.

Harry Shapiro, director of communications at the charity Drugscope, said that a shift in use away from heroin and crack towards cocaine reflected a general trend among all age groups.

“If young people are in a particularly risky or dysfunctional environment, alcohol or cannabis abuse is going to be more likely, and that makes them more likely to try other drugs.

“Cannabis has gone down since 2002, the general trends might be flat or dipping, but there is a minority of young people trying drugs as a coping mechanism.

“If you are in an environment where the house is used as a dealing hub or there are users regularly coming round to score, or if they come into contact with Class A substances through family members who are using them, then clearly that is an issue.

“Although they are coming forward for treatment, it’s likely that their drug use is symptomatic of other problems that are going on at home or school.

“I don’t think it’s a question of children and teenagers hanging round street corners, buying off dealers, but that could be their future if they don’t get treatment.”

Figures published this month show that the number of people under 35 entering treatment for cocaine addiction has increased by 75 per cent among men and 60 per cent for women in the past four years. The average age to start using the drug was 21.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesman, said: “There is a real problem with young people receiving mixed messages because of the alleged glamour associated with drugs such as cocaine.

“We need to get the message across about the dangers of experimenting with a massively addictive drug such as cocaine.

“The Government has been obsessed with trying to look tough on drugs while slashing funding for information services and refusing to listen to scientific opinion. Ministers must do a lot more to make people aware of the serious damage that drug use can do to your long-term health.”

Rosanna O’Connor, director of delivery at the NTA, said that the latest figures indicated that the heroin “epidemic” had peaked.

She said: “Most young people receiving substance misuse interventions cannot be described as addicts in the same way as adults in cocaine addiction treatment programs.

“Addiction is normally the result of regular, consistent use of substances over time; most under-18s who have problems have not pursued drug-taking long enough to result in dependency.”

John Mallalieu, of the charity Turning Point, said that there was no conclusive answer as to why fewer young people were receiving crack or heroin addiction treatment, “but it seems they may now be more aware of the potential consequences of using these drugs than previous generations were”.

He added: “The fact that more young people are drinking tells us that similar cultural messages for alcohol are not sinking in. In 2008 heroin was responsible for around 900 deaths, whereas alcohol was attributed to nearly 8,500.

“Quite simply, greater resource is needed to ensure that England’s next generation of drinkers are taught of the dangers of alcohol, and change their behaviour before it is too late.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adolescents More Prone To Substance Abuse

Hindustan Times

A study into why teens become addicted to smoking more easily than adults and why adolescents are more prone to substance abuse has been carried out.

In an evaluation for Faculty of 1000 Biology, Neil Grunberg described the study, as “fascinating” and suggested it “may have implications to help understand why adolescents are particularly prone to drug abuse”.

The study looked at dopamine levels in adolescent and adult rats after nicotine withdrawal. Nicotine increases the level of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of pleasure and well being.

The authors found that the withdrawal signs (physical and neurochemical) seen in adolescent rats were fewer than those observed in adults.

The study provided previously unknown mechanisms as to why there are differences in nicotine withdrawal between adolescent and adult rats.

The key here, Grunberg stated, is “age alters [neurological] systems and interactions relevant to nicotine”.

The reason that adolescents are prone to drug abuse (in this case, nicotine) is that they have increased sensitivity to its rewarding effects and do not display the same negative withdrawal effects as adults do, due to an underdeveloped dopamine-producing system.

Grunberg said since rats are not subject to cultural influences, “rat studies of nicotine ... have provided valuable insights that have led to practical behavioural and pharmacological interventions”.

“These findings might also be relevant to other addictive drugs and possible substance abuse treatment programs,” he added.

The study has been published by Natividad et al. in Synapse journal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Program Offers Addicts A Glint Of Hope

Baltimore Sun

When Heather Spiker graduated recently, there was no cap and gown, no pomp and circumstance. But for the first time in her adult life, Spiker said, there was hope.

Spiker, 37, was one of nine people to complete Howard County's drug and DUI court program during a ceremony in District Court. The program was set up in 2004 to give nonviolent repeat offenders a chance to rehabilitate themselves rather than go - or return - to jail.

"We see them when they're sick, down and out," said Bobbie Fine, a former defense attorney and prosecutor who has coordinated the program since its inception. "This program saves the state money [in terms of incarcerations] and it's given these people a life, self-worth."

According to Fine, Spiker is one of the program's biggest successes.

It has given the Baltimore native an opportunity "at life" after years of what she described as an addiction to alcohol and drugs - including heroin - that resulted in nearly two dozen arrests since 2000 and as many incarcerations of varying lengths in detention centers throughout the state.

Asked when she was in jail, Spiker said, "When wasn't I in jail?"

Through court order, Spiker said, she spent 15 months in drug treatment programs, first at the Shoemaker Center in Sykesville and later at The W House, a Hagerstown residential halfway house for women in the early stages of drug-addiction recovery.

She has reunited with her two sons, ages 18 and 14, whom she said she hadn't seen in five years because of her addiction.

The celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas this year have special meaning to Spiker, who spent many previous holidays either in jail or homeless.

"Holidays and having family around, and friends and a network and being on the way to recovery, that's a pretty special thing," she said. "You're really in touch with reality and spirituality and just with life. When you get all of that back, and you have time for love, it's a pretty special thing."

Though Spiker twice relapsed after starting the program after an arrest in Howard County in 2007 for possession of heroin, she said that the difference between this program and others she had been at came from the compassion she felt from District Court Judge Neil David Axel and the support she received from Fine and others involved.

"It wasn't just to lock me up and throw away the key," Spiker said. "I would get arrested and there was no help available, at least not through any kind of court. When I reached this program, it was like they had faith in me way before I had faith in myself. This is a hard program to go through, especially for an addict. Structure is what I needed."

The drug rehab programs are set up to take a year, but Fine acknowledge that many, including Spiker, take longer because of their continuing battle with drugs and alcohol.

"It's very difficult to say to somebody, 'From this day on, you'll never use [drugs or alcohol],' " Fine said. "You won't say they will [relapse], but there's a good chance they may. We don't throw them out the first or second time if they're doing everything else that we require of them."

As for Spiker, who was chosen as the heroin addiction treatment program participant to speak at the graduation ceremony, Fine said, "We knew how hard Heather was trying, and she proved us right. We had faith in her, we thought she could do it. She had been doing so well, when she did relapse. But she had the determination. We didn't want to give up on her."

Spiker said that her problems with addiction began shortly after graduating from high school in Woodstock, Va., where she had gone for her senior year after leaving Catonsville because her mother was having her own problems with an addiction that would eventually kill her.

"She died in my arms when she was 44," Spiker said.

Returning to Baltimore, Spiker got a job doing clerical work, but to earn extra money, began bartending on The Block. Spiker said that the bartending job led to her becoming an exotic dancer and later a prostitute. Her first arrest came when she tried to buy drugs while she was a prostitute.

"The last 10 years were pretty crazy," she said. "I lived on the streets in Baltimore. I worked Wilkens Avenue, Washington Boulevard, all those areas, for years. I lived in abandoned houses, in alleys in the summer, wherever I could. I was going in and out of jails and institutions."

Kerri Robinson, the lead addiction counselor at The W House, said that Spiker had "hit rock-bottom" when she arrived and was "ready to surrender, knowing that she was totally powerless to overcome her addiction by herself."

Since her graduation, Spiker has moved to Jersey City, N.J. She starts a new job in New York on Dec. 15.

She knows her battles aren't over, but she is confident that she will not relapse. Spiker knows what the alternative is. "There's no going back. If I go back, I will die," she said.