Politicians respond to outcry against drugs. DRUGS AND POLITICS
Gov. Bob Graham, running for the US Senate, had a busy day. He was up early for breakfast with a labor union council. Then he campaigned at a black college, a retirement home, a Baptist church, a police headquarters, a downtown fundraiser, and a glittery evening reception. Yet everywhere Governor Graham went that day -- among blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old -- one common subject came up: illegal drugs.
From Key West to the Panhandle, Florida voters are concerned, even alarmed, at what is happening to their state because of drugs.
Crime is multiplying. Young people are getting hooked on crack, a potent form of cocaine. Jails are so swamped that criminals must be put back on the street. Law enforcement officers are growing discouraged. And even in small towns, many streets and neighborhoods are becoming unsafe for law-abiding citizens.
The problem is so pervasive that Orlando police say they can easily make a swing through one of the city's drug centers and make 20 arrests. An officer in nearby Brevard County agrees, but adds: ``We don't have the jail space to put them in.''
The latest crime wave caused by drugs has swept northward from Miami and has now reached Jacksonville. Over a period of seven or eight months, the crisis has spread steadily in this direction, upward along both coasts, and into rural communities in North and Central Florida.
The trigger has been crack. For just $5, anyone can wander into certain neighborhoods in Titusville or St. Augustine or Melbourne, and buy a ``hit.''
Crack has put cocaine, once exclusively the drug of the rich and the famous, within reach of 15-year-old high school students.
All this has escalated the drug crisis to the No. 1 political issue of 1986, not just in Florida, but across the United States. It's a development that has startled politicians who can ordinarily see a major public concern like this coming far ahead.
A Roper Organization poll found in August that 86 percent of the nation's voters consider fighting the drug problem an ``extremely important'' issue -- more than any other concern.
Yet experts warn that even now, the public doesn't fully comprehend the seriousness of the drug threat.
Here in Florida, the crisis seems ready-made for US Sen. Paula Hawkins, the Republican incumbent, who is trying to fend off a strong challenge by Democrat Graham.
Senator Hawkins has been in the forefront of the drug issue since she got to Washington in 1981. She has portrayed drugs as a threat to American children and to the American family.
In her position as chairman of the subcommittee on children, family, drugs, and alcoholism, she has urged mandatory, 20-year sentences for large-scale drug importers, along with expanded powers for the US Customs service to make arrests.
Yet Hawkins has found it difficult to turn her antidrug crusade into a political plus. As rising drug use galvanizes public attention, Democrats and Republicans have fought to outdo one another. Hawkins has found the issue outrunning her positions.
On Thursday, for example, the House voted 392 to 16 (a measure of the concern over this issue) to approve a bill that includes imposition of the death penalty in murder cases related to drugs. The House also voted to use military forces to halt drug shipments into the country.
In a similar, get-tough fashion, Graham has tried to race ahead of Hawkins on the drug issue.
Graham casts the drug crisis in a larger context as another element in a growing threat to the security of America. Asked what the most pressing issue will be for the 100th Congress that meets next January, he responds:
``America must regain control of its borders. Today the problem is illegal drugs and immigrants. Tomorrow it could be terrorists and bombs. We have the capability to secure our borders, but we have lacked the will to do so.''
Neither candidate, however, is likely to get much mileage from a tough approach to drugs, political observers say. In the end, they add, toughness won't have too much effect on vote-getting, because such unanimity has developed on the issue. The public simply wants to make sure the candidates take a hard-nosed position.
Hawkins and Graham are reflecting public concerns that escalated rapidly over the summer months.
In Florida, state and local police officials describe with dismay what appears to be happening to their communities.
One state investigator, who asked that his name not be used, said crack addiction is spreading at an unprecedented rate. The users come from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, school teachers, students, the unemployed, blacks, whites, and Hispanics. ``There are no boundaries on this thing,'' he said.
Lt. James P. Donn, an officer with the Special Investigations Division of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, paints a grim picture of what's happening in his area of the state, which includes the Kennedy Space Center.
In every town in Brevard, says Lieutenant Donn, there is now at least one center for drug traffic. Yet most citizens do not realize how pervasive the problem has become.
``There are certain areas of Brevard County that if a family drove into on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, they would come out with a completely different perspective. It would be just an unbelievable experience.''
Donn says they would see ``serious street violence. They would probably become a victim of that violence. They would probably be confronted with what they would consider a riotous situation in which they would be accosted on the street.''
Anyone going into these ``drug zones'' is in danger, because ``they are entering an area where the street dealers own the territory. They assume that anybody that enters is there to conduct business with them.
``When the dealers confront someone who is out of their element completely, and is taken by surprise, they will seize upon that confusion and try to get personal gain from it. That's when the panic occurs and someone gets hurt.''
Public concern has grown as crime has spread outside these drug zones.
Addicts, whose habits can quickly grow from $5-a-day to $100-a-day, turn to burglary, robbery, and other crimes as a source of funds. Residents in both Brevard and Indian River counties have been shocked by a wave of robberies of convenience stores by addicts who are apparently high on drugs. Clerks have been gunned down for no apparent reason at West Cocoa, Merritt Island, and Vero Beach.
Brevard County Sheriff Claude Miller, stunned by the shootings, wonders whether all convenience stores should be closed at dusk.
``We don't have the manpower to protect them,'' one deputy observes. Sheriff Miller grumbles that the county's crime was beginning to resemble New York City or Chicago.
For the politicians, like Hawkins and Graham, it's easy to propose broad answers. But the problem is so pervasive that it eludes any short-term solutions.
One thing that has amazed state investigators has been the speed with which the problem has spread.
The original, sophisticated distribution systems for cocaine took years to put in place. They are now established, and apparently are under the control of wealthy, centralized organizations, often with foreign roots.
The crack network, however, sprang up almost overnight. In most areas, it is a local operation. There's no ``godfather,'' no interstate or international network controlling the distribution channels. In many cases, the powdered cocaine is cooked into hard chunks of crack right in the city where it will be sold. It is distributed by these local entrepreneurs to free-wheeling street dealers.
In Brevard County, most of the crack supply comes from the small Haitian community, which has its roots in Miami. Haitians sell the crack to local street dealers (mostly young, black males) who peddle it to addicts.
While there are some crack dealers who are white, most white addicts apparently go directly into black neighborhoods to get supplies. This sparks much of the street crime because white doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others unaccustomed to black neighborhoods are inviting targets to the criminal elements dealing in drugs.
Graham, who has run Florida's government for the past eight years, calls crack ``as great a menace as our society has seen.''
However, Florida's law-enforcement officials can do only so much. The crisis may be too big for them.
If the Hawkins-Graham campaign is a precursor of what lies ahead, Washington may be poised for even more get-tough measures that will almost certainly involve greatly expanded use of the military.