Police Academy talks Pittsburgh drugs scene

By Lindsay Carroll

This is the seventh installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the… This is the seventh installment in a series of reports from Lindsay Carroll, who enrolled in the Citizens’ Police Academy, a 15-week training course run by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittsburgh police Sgt. Doug Epler told the class not to worry about the bags of white powder he was passing around. ‘ ‘ ‘ Nothing was real, he said, and everything was clean. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘I wouldn’t put your hands around your mouth though,’ he said. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler visited the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Citizens’ Police Academy class to teach regular city residents about the narcotics investigative squad. He brought fake drugs and paraphernalia to show the students signs of drugs in their neighborhoods. ‘ ‘ ‘ The class awkwardly passed around bongs, rolling papers and examples of joints and crack pipes. Some students curiously smelled the objects. ‘ ‘ ‘ Others tried to figure out what the substances really were. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘That’s oregano,’ one student said knowingly. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler said that Pittsburgh’s heroin use constitutes for most drug arrests. He said heroin presents a problem in all parts of the city ‘- expensive and inexpensive areas. People from outer counties, such as Somerset and Butler, often drive to Pittsburgh to get cheaper heroin. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Why are we the Wal-Mart of heroin sales?’ asked one student. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler said it’s common for all cities to sell drugs at cheaper rates than in rural areas and that the narcotics team only saw an increase in heroin use in the past six years. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘The purity level has gone through the roof,’ said Epler. ‘It’s 80 to 90 percent. It used to be 40 to 50 percent.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Heroin is derived from morphine, which comes from the opium poppy plant, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It can cause fatal overdose and organ damage. If the powder is cooked into liquid and injected intravenously, it can spread the human immunodeficiency virus and hepatitis. ‘ ‘ ‘ Dealers sell the white powdery drug in very small amounts, mostly in wax paper packets used for stamp collecting. Sometimes dealers put a stamp ‘brand’ on their drug for marketing, with names of video games or movies, said Epler. ‘ ‘ ‘ Heroin usually arrives in Pittsburgh pre-packaged from Philadelphia, New Jersey and other areas, he said. ‘ ‘ ‘ Those dealers get the drugs from overseas. ‘ ‘ ‘ Heroin is highly addictive, and Epler said some people can’t function without snorting it when they wake up in the morning. But after awhile, snorting heroin can ‘burn out’ the receptors in the user’s nose, and the drug no longer provides a high. ‘ ‘ ‘ At that point, the user turns to needles. Epler took two cups of vinegar and gave them to two students to demonstrate how sharing needles spreads disease. ‘ ‘ ‘ He put yellow food dye in one cup and green in the other to represent the blood of two people. Using a syringe, he drew some of the fake colored heroin from each cup. ‘ ‘ ‘ Holding the syringe filled with murky mixed liquid, Epler said that not only do users share needles and heroin, but they share blood. ‘ ‘ ‘ They usually need to draw blood back into the syringe so they can tell they have vein and not muscle. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Heroin is generally a team sport,’ said Epler. ‘ ‘ ‘ Two impact squads, two investigative squads, a ‘weed-and-seed’ team and a ‘vice-unit’ targeting prostitution and gambling form the narcotics division of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler’s unit, the investigative squad, targets dealers and uses informant tips to prepare for drug busts. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler said the impact squad generally makes the drug user and dealer arrests, which occur for heroin at a rate of about 2-to-1. ‘ ‘ ‘ The second most arrests come from crack cocaine, formed when cocaine powder is hardened for smoking. A small piece of crack can sell for $20 in Pittsburgh, while a tiny amount of heroin is usually $10, said Epler.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Powder cocaine tends to be more suburban and ‘high-end’ than crack, he said. One ounce can sell for $1,000. ‘ ‘ ‘ A National Institute on Drug Addiction study in 2007 reported that 7.8 percent of 12th graders used cocaine in their lifetime as opposed to 1.5 percent for heroin. ‘ ‘ ‘ Some convenience stores market crack pipe materials together, said Epler. ‘ ‘ ‘ They sell the products to make a crack pipe near each other ‘- copper sink scrubbers, the temper glass tubes from cheap flower bouquets and lighters. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Those three don’t go together,’ said Epler. ‘Unless you do crack.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The glass tubes allow the user to smoke the drug, and the copper scrubber stops the user from ingesting the flaming hot crack. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Many times, users have burned lips and fingers from smoking despite the hot pipe because they don’t want to waste the drug, he said. ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler said he’s seen both middle-schoolers and geriatrics arrested for selling drugs. ‘ ‘ ‘ Most people arrested for drug use or dealing have heroin, crack cocaine or marijuana. Epler said in a populated city like Pittsburgh, it’s hard to cook the methamphetamines that are plaguing the Midwest. ‘ ‘ ‘ Since cooking meth requires chemicals such as those found in drain cleaners and fertilizer, the stench is strong, and it would be difficult to run a meth lab in a city. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Thank heavens it hasn’t caught on here,’ said Epler. ‘Also, it’s an explosive. You would get caught very easily.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ Epler said it’s important that people who notice drug problems in their neighborhoods to call the Pittsburgh police. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘It’s becoming a lot more popular to grow your own weed,’ he said. ‘If your neighbors’ yard looks like crap and they’re bringing in potting soil, give us a call.” ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘