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Dealing crack cocaine: a view from the streets of Honolulu.

Criminal justice professionals generally view the urban drug scene through their official contacts with it. For example, police officers arrest offenders, judges and prosecutors try defendants, probation and parole officers manage cases, and drug treatment counselors treat patients. Such necessarily limited exposure, however, may not provide a complete picture of drug trafficking.

To uncover the dynamics and social structure of this illicit street activity, I interviewed and observed five drug runners who sell crack cocaine in Honolulu, Hawaii's Chinatown district.(1) The perspective of these men and women involved in the drug trade can offer insight into other ways to address the crack cocaine problem.



Hawaii, a well-known hub of international travel and tourism, consists of eight major islands. Its capital, Honolulu, is located on the Island of Oahu and is the largest city in the state, as well as the focus of government and commerce. Eighty percent of the 1.3 million people who live in Hawaii reside in the city and county of Honolulu.

This study focuses on Honolulu's "Chinatown," which has been a popular subject for previous research on deviant behavior.(2) Chinatown also has been noted for a number of vice crimes, such as gambling and prostitution, since the latter part of the 19th century. Its vice district resembles similar sections of cities around the world. One previous study described it thus:

At dusk, the dilapidated brick buildings come to life. Sailors, "respectable citizens" out slumming, prostitutes, pimps, police and vice squads men converge in the tattoo parlors, pornography shops, movies, bars, and pool halls which line both sides of the streets.(3)


I collected data using field observations cross-checked by interviews and preprinted questionnaires. The questionnaire contained 22 open-ended questions asking the subjects how they sold their crack cocaine. I also observed drug dealers conducting transactions on the street, in vehicles, and in video theaters that specialize in hard-core pornography.

In addition to observing and conversing casually with the subjects, I conducted in-depth, taped interviews, paying them from $10 to $20 in cash for their time, an amount comparable to what they would make for a single drug transaction. Because of the expense, I limited the sample to five subjects. Some subjects, as well as members of the surrounding populace, were using and under the influence of crack cocaine at the times of observation.


The picture of a clearly defined structure of trafficking crack cocaine in Chinatown emerged from the research. The street-level drug trade consists of dealers, runners, promoters, and addicts (buyers). Dealers supply crack cocaine to the promoters and runners. Promoters locate or "hook" new buyers. Runners solicit prospective buyers on street corners.

I selected five subjects to interview for this study using the snowball sampling method.(4) That is, I asked the first subject to recommend the second subject, the second to recommend the third, and so on, thus creating a snowball effect.

The sample included two black males, Fred and Darryl, one white male, Carl, one white female, Toni, and one Filipino female, Michelle. All of the subjects had moved to Hawaii from the mainland. They ranged in age from 27 to 44, and each had completed 1 to 3 years of college.

Only one subject, Darryl, reported a prior arrest history for dealing crack cocaine on Oahu. Michelle reported an arrest history, but only for prostitution, and Toni reported doing 6 years in a federal prison for embezzlement. Carl reported being arrested frequently for offenses related to drug usage, i.e., theft and shoplifting, but never being arrested specifically for using or possessing drugs. Fred reported two prior arrests on the mainland for trafficking cocaine, but none for the 8 years he had resided on Oahu.

All five subjects in this study defined themselves as runners. In general, runners are crack addicts who traffic crack cocaine to support their habits.

Runners stand on a street corner and ask passersby (on foot and in vehicles) if they "need anything." Sometimes the inquiries go unspoken, with the runners glancing at people and waiting for nonverbal cues. They then take the buyers' money, exchange it for drugs from the dealers, and run the drugs back to the buyers.(5)

The runners all claimed to be addicted and worked as runners to support their expensive habits. The opportunity to get "free smoke" by pinching a small portion of the amount purchased for customers drew them to becoming runners, although they do not discuss this practice with their clients. The subjects rationalized that being a runner involved the greatest risk of arrest, so taking free smoke was justified.

When asked why runners do not become dealers and thus gain more access to crack cocaine, Michelle responded that the fear of hard prison time deterred her. Carl also added that four big dealers in Chinatown had a monopoly on crack cocaine distribution. Toni, Fred, and Darryl presented similar reasons that made becoming a dealer unattractive.

Carl also noted that most runners who were addicts and tried to become dealers ended up "smoking their load" before it could be sold. Toni stated that the "big time dealers" in Chinatown were not users and were in the crack business strictly to make money. This money would then be used for gambling or other types of illegal revenue-generating schemes.


Why is crack cocaine so popular with the users? Smoking crack cocaine produces a similar but more intense high than powdered cocaine. Both induce excitement, euphoria, increased alertness, and wakefulness, although the effects of powdered cocaine last longer.

Noted for its intensity and pleasurable effects, cocaine has the potential for extraordinary psychic dependency. A tape-recorded conversation with Carl concerning the addictive power of crack cocaine's high supports this claim. He said:

Well, whoever is hearing this, naturally you're an adult and probably experienced an orgasm. Magnify that 10,000 times throughout your whole body, and I do mean 10,000. That's why most of your people who get into crack lose their sex life. They lose their sex drive because crack is [their] whole new woman. That might sound weird or stupid, but that's the way it is. It's a feeling; it's a state of euphoria like you would not believe. It's unreal, but if you've never done it, Whoever I'm talking to, don't ever try it.(6)

Members of the sample reported that they use crack cocaine to forget about life or mask their personal problems until they can deal with them, and they supposed their clients felt the same. When asked about his experience while under the influence of crack cocaine, Carl replied:

I feel high like you wouldn't believe.... It's hard to explain how you feel.... I feel like I'm floating on air.... On one hand ... I feel like an idiot for doing what I'm doing and that is absolutely nothing except getting high, but on the other hand, I love it because I'm getting high as much as I want, when I want ... and that makes up for everything else. You see people who live on the streets, 99 percent of them smoke crack because it's a way for them to forget about life ... forget about the things you wanted in life ... this is like a replacement.

For the subjects of the study, crack cocaine appears to provide an escape, however temporary, in exchange for a lifetime commitment of usage. When asked how crack cocaine addiction could be stopped, Carl simply stated, "You can't ... period. It will be on this earth as long as there is people. As long as there is people, there will be people smoking crack cocaine." He advised anyone considering trying crack cocaine, "Don't ever do it, don't even try it once. You do it once, I don't [care] who you are, you will be hooked for the rest of your life."

During the interviews, I raised questions about crack cocaine's prevalence over other drugs, such as heroin, crystal methamphetamine, and marijuana, in Chinatown. According to Carl, heroin had lost its popularity because of the AIDS/ HIV epidemic among intravenous drug users. Carl and Darryl both explained that marijuana was basically considered a "kiddie" drug, sold too cheaply in large amounts for dealers to make a profit.

The subjects said that crystal methamphetamine (commonly referred to as "ice") sold for less than half as much as cocaine and provided a tremendously better high. Drug intelligence(7) and popular media reports indicated that ice was an epidemic on the island. Despite these reports, hardly anyone approached me during my research to buy ice. I frequently observed people smoking crack cocaine on street comers, in dark alleys, and in doorways, but crystal methamphetamine seemed almost nonexistent and difficult to get in the Chinatown area. I concluded that factors other than consumer demand apparently affected the drug market, and I asked the subjects about those.


I initially assumed that concerted law enforcement efforts to curb ice distribution on the island of Oahu led to its scarcity. However, Carl and the others quickly dismissed this hypothesis, believing that law enforcement had little or nothing to do with it. Instead, a rigidly structured drug subculture controlled by the dealers dictated which drugs could be bought and when.

Carl explained that nearly all of the cocaine comes from Colombia and that organized crime groups in the United States and South America would not let any countries in Southeast Asia (the source of crystal methamphetamine) move in on the multibillion dollar drug industry. The small amount of ice for sale on the island came from the high percentage of individuals who had strong ties with organized crime in Southeast Asian countries.

Carl then commented that these ethnic ties are not common throughout the rest of the United States, and crystal methamphetamine would not be easy to get outside of Hawaii. Toni added that attempts by Southeast Asian organized crime groups to move in on the mainland U.S. drug economy were met by death inflicted by South American organized crime figures and organizations. All of the subjects interviewed were quite well-versed in the politics of the drug subculture.

In essence, it appears that the dealers set the agenda for what drugs are marketed, irrespective of law enforcement efforts or user preference. When asked why dealers preferred crack cocaine over other drugs, Carl explained:

It has nothing to do with the high. Me personally, I've never experienced crystal methamphetamine.... That's a whole new world and it is probably a much better high than crack, and from what I hear it is. But the problem here is that it's twenty times cheaper than crack. If all the major drug dealers on this island let crystal methamphetamine get out ..., it would put them out of business. In other words, if I was to buy a $10 bag of crystal methamphetamine and smoke it, I'd be ... wrecked for 10 or 11 hours.... Now a cocaine dealer doesn't want that ...; he doesn't want me spending $10 or $15 a day.... He wants me spending $150 a day.... That's why they don't want [crystal methamphetamine] on the streets.

To further understand the economic advantages of pushing crack over other forms of cocaine, one must understand the manufacturing processes involved. Dealers usually distribute illicit cocaine as a white crystalline powder, often diluted by a variety of other ingredients. The most common additives include sugars, such as lactose, inositol, mannitol, and local anesthetics, such as lidocaine.(8)

Addicts and dealers prefer free basing cocaine for a better high, but this has a strong economic drawback from the dealers' perspective, as Carl explained. To free base cocaine, users mix powdered cocaine and baking soda in a ratio of three parts cocaine to one part baking soda. They then place this mixture in water and bring it to a boil. At this point the water appears very oily. They then re-move the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool. As it cools, the water becomes clear and the mixture crystallizes into a rock-like form. The end product weighs approximately one half of the original cocaine. It can now be smoked in a pipe but no longer can be snorted.

Free basing is dangerous because cocaine hydrochloride (powdered form) can become volatile when heated to convert it to a cocaine base (rock form). In the early 1980s, cocaine commonly was administered by snorting the powdered variety through the nasal passages; however, the subjects stated that they and their clients now prefer to smoke it.

Making crack cocaine follows the same basic procedure as free basing, but dealers combine baking soda with an additional ingredient, known on the street as "comeback." The runners said that the Chinese invented comeback and that the big-time dealers who sell crack cocaine have easy access to the substance. A Miami study defined comeback as a cocaine analog, such as lidocaine, that binds with the cocaine when heated and increases the volume of the end product.(9)

Some substitute drugs have effects similar to crack cocaine, but they are actually other stimulants marketed as the genuine article. Known to some users as "crank," the mysterious substitutes may contain free base residue, concentrated caffeine, amphetamines, prescription stimulants, or any combination thereof.(10) A recent entry to this substitute market is pemoline, a potent central nervous system stimulant used for the treatment of attention-deficit disorders.(11)

For dealers, using comeback versus straight free basing in the manufacturing process has significant ramifications. Comeback doubles the original drug amount, so that 1 ounce of powdered cocaine becomes 2 ounces of crack. In contrast, free basing cuts the original amount in half. Even though straight free basing provides a better high for an addict, it cuts profits tremendously for dealers and runners.

Effects of the Law

The subjects indicated that state laws affect the way crack is dealt on the street. The runners seemingly were knowledgeable concerning the current laws regarding crack cocaine and related paraphernalia.

The crack pipe is a small cylindrical glass tube roughly 4 inches in length and three-fourths of an inch in diameter. To smoke the crack, the user inserts a copper mesh screen (similar to steel wool) into the tube and packs it with a stick called a "pusher." After the crack rocks are put into the tube and heated with a cigarette lighter, the user inhales the smoke from the heated crack.

Carl reported that simply having the crack pipe and the screen separately was not an offense, but when the screen is in the cylinder, possession becomes an offense. In fact, Carl's description of a crack pipe falls under the Hawaii Revised Statutes Uniformed Controlled Substances Acts as "drug paraphernalia" - equipment used or for the intended use of introducing a controlled substance into the human body. This includes "metal, wooden, acrylic, glass, stone, plastic, or ceramic pipes with or without screens, permanent screens, hashish heads, or punctured metal bowls."(12) Use or possession with intent to use the crack pipe is a class C felony, and upon conviction, one can be imprisoned up to 5 years, fined up to $5,000, or both.(13)

The "pipe man" sells crack pipes and copper mesh screens on the street. However, for this study, I purchased a "crack kit" or "junkie kit" (a glass pipe and some copper mesh) from a local convenience store for $8.50 (estimated to be about seven times the actual value of the items). I went into the store and asked the clerk if I could purchase a "glass straw." The clerk quickly handed me a small brown paper bag and asked for the $8.50. Although selling these items is not illegal, their intended use when purchased is obvious.

I found it peculiar that a legitimate business would knowingly contribute to the drug trade. However, follow-up interviews with the subjects reported that these local establishments sold anywhere from 40 to 50 pipes daily, earning $340 to $425 a day in crack pipe sales alone.

The monetary incentive apparently persuades storekeepers to market crack pipes. Toni commented that the pipes were of poor quality and usually cracked from the intense heat needed for smoking crack; she believed the storekeepers sold these poor quality pipes intentionally to get repeat buyers.

The quantity of drugs sold also was influenced by state laws. All of the runners I interviewed commonly sold an amount of crack cocaine called a "dirty thirty." The dirty thirty appeared to weigh roughly less than one eighth of an ounce, and it sold for $30. By trafficking crack cocaine in this amount, the runner can be convicted only of a class C felony, promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree.(14)

The runners stated that they and their clients conducted drug transactions in this amount specifically to reduce the potential criminal penalties. From these comments, it appears that fear of incarceration does have some impact on suppressing drug trafficking.

Income and Housing

The subjects had difficulty reporting the exact amount of money they made from dealing crack. They reported an average of $300 a day from crack sales, but explained that they also got $150 to $200 each day in free smoke, which they valued just as much as money, if not more.

Estimating the amount of crack the subjects smoked daily also proved difficult. Michelle commented on her crack consumption:

Well, I was thinking about that the other day. For instance, let's say an eight ball [$300 worth of crack cocaine] or three bullets [one bullet equals $100 worth of crack cocaine], I can easily smoke that in a day, no problem. I mean, I've had the pipe up to my mouth every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 1 minute.... How much I smoke depends on a number of things, the amount of dope I have, the availability of dope in town, it just depends.... [A]nd when supplies are low my usage is low and I have to hook to make the difference.(15)

Despite their earnings from selling crack or sex, all the subjects reported that they were homeless. The men lived on the streets, but the women would try to find a "date" to sleep with at his house or require him to purchase a hotel room for them in exchange for sex. The women would resort, however, to sleeping on the street when necessary. The women had the option of bartering sex for money to survive when Chinatown's crack cocaine supplies became scarce, whereas the men did not.

Even though the subjects gained a substantial amount of free smoke from running crack, that alone did not satisfy their addictions. They reported that a significant amount of their monetary earnings still went to purchase crack to get high, not leaving much for food or housing. They also explained that going back and forth from a residence or shelter 10 to 20 times a day to purchase crack was impractical, making it actually easier to live on the streets of Chinatown.

In addition, all the subjects reported running crack all day and night (there was no "best" time), which made living on the streets advantageous. They handled the need for a place to get high by using the 24-hour pornographic video theaters in Chinatown.(16)


The drug runners described their method of selling crack cocaine, and I later observed this pattern of activity taking place on the streets of Chinatown. It did not appear to be specific to any one race, gender, or class; all of the runners dealt cocaine in this manner. This may suggest that officers could use similar observations to identify individuals involved in drug transactions.

Carl described a typical transaction in which an addict drives by in a car and holds up two fingers to a runner. This symbol means that the buyer wants to purchase a $20 rock of crack cocaine.(17) The runner then approaches the buyer, receives the money, and quickly goes to one of the local bars or pornographic video theaters where the dealers have set up a safe house.(18) After giving the dealer the money and receiving the crack cocaine, the runner either takes a quick hit of the crack or pinches a small amount on the way back to the buyer. (Because the runners are addicted, they usually must take a hit of crack cocaine at least every 15 minutes.)

The runner then returns to the vehicle, giving the buyer the crack cocaine. If the runner encounters law enforcement officers on the return to the buyer, he or she drops the small amount of drugs onto the ground, knowing that the small rocks of crack quickly will become lost on the busy city street corner.


This study, and others like it, can provide criminal justice professionals with a deeper understanding of the complexity of drug trafficking. Such knowledge might not put an end to the drug trade, but, armed with a better understanding of the drug world - the participants, their motivations, and their methods - police officers, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole officers, drug treatment counselors, as well as educators, can make more informed decisions in their attempts to squelch the drug trade, help addicts overcome their dependencies, and prevent the insidious influence of crack cocaine from reaching any deeper into our communities.


1 The author conducted this research as part of his doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

2 See, for example, A. Lubliner, et al, The Honolulu Queens, Graduate Research Project, School of Social Work, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1973; G. Yoshimoto, Prostitutes of Hotel Street, Graduate Research Project, School of Social Work, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1983; and G. Knowles, A Study of Hotel Street Prostitutes in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1992, Criminal Justice Department, Graduate Thesis, Chaminade University of Honolulu, 1992.

3 Ibid., Lubliner, et al, 1.

4 Snowball sampling is a nonprobability sampling method often employed in field research and most popular in studying deviant cases. For further information, see M. Maxfield and E. Babbie, Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1995).

5 Although some of the subjects reported trafficking additional commodities, such as heroin, marijuana, women, and sex, they all said they spent the majority of their time dealing and generating revenue from crack cocaine sales.

6 Interview by author, March 28, 1995, Bishop and Merchant Streets, Chinatown, tape recording, Honolulu, Hawaii.

7 National Institute of Justice, The Rise of Crack and Ice: Experiences in Three Locales, NCJ 139559 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1993).

8 U.S. Department of Justice, "Drugs of Abuse, Ding Enforcement Administration," 1988, 37.

9 J. Inciardi, R. Horwitz, and E. Pottieger, Street Kids, Street Drugs, Street Crime: An Examination of Drug Use and Serious Delinquency in Miami (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1993), 100.

10 J.A. Inciardi, The War of Drugs, Heroin, Cocaine, Crime, and Public Policy (Palto, CA: Mayfield Press, 1986), 82.

11 Susan E. Polchert and Robert M. Morse, "Pemoline Abuse," Journal of the American Medical Association, August 16, 1985, 946-7.

12 Hawaii Revised Statutes, "Uniform Controlled Substances Act," Section 329-1, Hawaii Criminal and Traffic Law Manual, 1994, 270.

13 Ibid., 286.

14 Hawaii Revised Statutes, "Promoting a Dangerous Drug in the Third Degree, Sections 712-1243," Hawaii Criminal and Traffic Law Manual, 1994, 448.

15 Interview by author, March 18, 1995, Bethel and Hotel Streets, Chinatown, tape recording, Honolulu, Hawaii.

16 In Chinatown, the pornographic video theater serves as the Hawaiian version of the mainland crack house. The drug runners reported conducting drug transactions in the pornographic video theaters and stated that, on average, 70 percent of their drug transactions occurred exclusively in these theaters. They also used the theaters themselves for getting high about half of the time and estimated that an average of 86 percent of the people who entered the theaters did so to get high.

17 The driver may hold three or four fingers, meaning "I want a $30 or $40 purchase of cocaine." Prices above $40 and below $20 are usually negotiated verbally between the buyer and seller, using code words such as "bullet" ($100 worth of crack) and "eight ball" ($300 worth of crack). These terms are mutually exclusive in drug trafficking lingo.

18 On April 6, 1995, I conducted a reconnaissance of a particular establishment that was a safe house for crack dealers and observed a number of lookouts and body guards who had been deployed by the dealers. This practice seemed to explain how extremely difficult, if not impossible, it is for uniformed law enforcement to gain access or reach the dealers before being detected and reported by the lookouts.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Are You Wearing?

I asked the drug runners how they identified undercover police officers. I expected them to tell me an elaborate story about testing strangers' knowledge of the lingo of drug transactions or something similar. Instead, the runners said that the police could easily be identified by their footwear.

In Honolulu, police officers' uniforms are black with black tennis shoes. Trained in street survival, undercover officers, even though they wear clothes that blend in with the population, often wear their tennis shoes to be ready to fight, chase a suspect, make an arrest, etc. In general, drug runners do not have tactical training, so they wear what is comfortable - usually sandals or flip-flops because of the heat. The drug runners said they immediately pick up on the black tennis shoes, which, to them, signal an undercover officer.

I looked down at my feet and realized that I was wearing black tennis shoes, a carry-over from my own law enforcement training. The next night, I changed my footwear to brown high-tops. I immediately had more people willing to be interviewed than ever before.

What do you wear that might give you away?

Officer Gordon James Knowles, M.A. is a federal police officer serving in the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Police Division.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Title Annotation:includes related article on police identification; Honolulu, Hawaii
Author:Knowles, Gordon James
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Combating bigotry in law enforcement.
Next Article:The four R's for police executives.

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