Inner-City Teen Talks About Drugs

Eighteen-year-old woman testifies at congressional hearing about life in housing project. WAR ON DRUGS

THE contrast with business-as-usual is extraordinary, at this congressional hearing that is examining the related issues of youth, guns, crime, and drugs. Members of Congress usually learn about these issues from adult witnesses who know secondhand. This day they instead are raptly listening to a self-assured 18-year-old tell about what she knows firsthand: youth, guns, crime, and drugs.

They are all related, says the 18-year-old, identified only as Detra J. She lives in a low-income housing project in Washington, D.C. Detra explains that drug dealers have fancy cars and clothes. They serve as role models for many poor youth.

Girls think it is ``cute'' to go out with boys who work for drug dealers, and who have lots of money; thus boys work for drug dealers to gain money, respect from their peers, and popularity among the girls.

The money in drug selling is certainly good; even teen-agers can make ``$1,000 a night,'' Detra says. By comparison, wages of legal activities, whether $3.50 an hour or $10, look paltry.

Finally, gun dealers supply guns to the boys who work for them, often called runners. The weapons provide both protection and social status, Detra says.

Detra also says that youths who have guns often use them against other youths. ``Eight people who I know have been killed by guns,'' she says. The shootings were over trivial reasons: ``Most of the ones, they die for no reason.''

Others have been shot and have recovered, she says without giving a number. All the shootings are drug related, she adds. They were either people involved in drug selling, or bystanders shot by people who were involved.

``We can learn more from you and from listening to your testimony than listening to a lot of experts, because you're there,'' says Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois.

Throughout her testimony and the questioning by committee members, drug trafficking is repeatedly referred to as ``the trade'' or ``the business.''

Experts say that drug trafficking has indeed become a business in poor urban neighborhoods, and that it reflects considerable, albeit illegal, entrepreneurial skill by residents involved.

One challenge that is confronting society is how to redirect such entrepreneurial abilities into legal channels of business activity, they add.

``A growing problem of children and firearms'' does exist in America, Katherine K. Christoffel later told the subcommittee before which Detra testified - the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

Dr. Christoffel, a physician, says that she sees some of the results of trigger-pulling firsthand. She treats children at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Christoffel, speaking on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says firearm-caused injuries to children are a devastating problem. She adds that shootings are the leading cause of death among inner-city black adolescents and young men; her comment echoes the images displayed too frequently on television screens in many large American cities.

``No question that we've got a serious problem'' with guns and drugs, says Rep. Ron Packard (R) of California. There is great divergence during the committee hearing, as in American society in general, on what to do about it. Some of the ideas are very difficult to carry out.

CHRISTOFFEL suggests ``making handguns less available,'' which she says at least should reduce the frequency and severity of injuries.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas instead recommends strengthening American families and ending drug traffic.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California says one part of the solution is providing more positive role models.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is the committee chairman, urges that some attractive activity, like recreation programs, be provided in inner-city neighborhoods.

Detra herself suggests more programs to help disadvantaged youth, more communication between parents and children, and ``more jobs that offer more money.''

What if youths used guns anyway? Her reply is straight out of the law-and-order school: ``Lock 'em up.''

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