Why the drug tide is rising in Atlantic City

They aren't putting up any new casinos now - but drug pushing and other organized crime activities are booming, lawmen here say. Although a rise in drug sales is showing up in many cities, it appears much more pronounced in and around ''Las Vegas East,'' as this seaside gambling resort is often called.

Authorities attribute the increase here to two factors:

* According to Camden County (New Jersey) prosecutor John Mariano and government specialists on organized crime, drug sales have risen dramatically since the March 1980 slaying of reputed Philadelphia and south New Jersey organized crime leader Angelo Bruno.

He ''was opposed to being involved in drugs,'' says Mr. Mariano, and other officials agree. But his successors reportedly are allowing increased drug trafficking. Accompanying this new involvement has been a string of gangland-style shootings that only began with Bruno.

* The Reagan administration's planned cutbacks in drug-enforcement activities already appear to be having visible results here. Nationwide, the US Drug Enforcement Administration is operating with a contingency budget of 75 percent of fiscal 1981 funds. In the Atlantic City-Philadelphia area, the DEA has set aside new investigations, cut travel to a minimum, and left local officials without traditional intelligence support, local and DEA officials confirm.

At the same time, some area law-enforcement officials, including members of the Atlantic County prosecutor's office, are trying to cope with federal cuts by devoting more manpower to investigations. County Prosecutor Joseph Fusco says that if he receives the personnel increase he is hoping for, drug crackdowns will become a major priority.

Yet the impetus for the brisker sales of narcotics here rests not just in Bruno's demise and federal budget cuts. Atlantic City has eight casino-hotels, with another scheduled to open later this month. While this casino-hotel opening is expected to be the last for many months, the eight already open have generated 30,000 new jobs.

''Many of the casino employees are involved with buying drugs,'' said Jeffrey Blitz, head of the organized crime division of the Atlantic County prosecutor's office.

The casinos say that they are doing everything they can to weed out drug use by their employees, gamblers, and other visitors. However, some law-enforcement officials say that when it comes to gamblers and drugs some casinos have a laissez-faire attitude at best. These officials point out that casinos ply gambling patrons with free alcohol - traffic accidents due to drunk driving have increased dramatically in Atlantic City over the last five years - and that ''overlooking'' other drug abuse is merely a step beyond this practice.

Nevertheless, officials say it is extremely unlikely that any top casino executives promote drugs because so much more is at stake, not the least of which is the possible loss of a casino license that may be worth billions.

Local drug traffickers appear to have millions of dollars at stake as well.

''We're making arrests,'' Mr. Blitz declared, ''but we'll never be able to eradicate the drug traffic. There's too much money involved.''

For example, he says, the retail or price ''on the street'' of methamphetamine, a chemically produced illegal substance, is currently from $2, 200 to $2,300 an ounce.

While officials blame organized crime elements for the tremendous spurt in sales, their job in tracking them down is complicated by the fact that it is hard to pinpoint who has replaced Bruno as the head of organized crime in south Jersey and Philadelphia.

One of the people most often mentioned is Nicodemeo Scarfo, an Atlantic City resident, who in 1963 was convicted on charges of ''voluntary manslaughter'' and subsequently served a jail sentence. But Mr. Mariano says even if Mr. Scarfo has taken Bruno's place, he may not remain there long.

''There's no doubt the intelligence indicates Scarfo plays a fairly substantial role in this area,'' Mariano said in an interview in Camden. ''But someone somewhere along the line will get the notion that he's too visible. There's just too much focus on him by all of the law-enforcement agencies.''

Concerning the DEA cutbacks and the rise of drug traffic, Mariano elaborated that DEA officials ''have offered (specific) help, but it's not like it used to be. They've indicated, however, that they probably still can come up with some 'buy money.' '' (This term refers to funds used by undercover agents to buy drugs from dealers and use these drugs as evidence in criminal proceedings.)

The Reagan administration has recommended that DEA's fiscal 1981 budget of $ 215.81 million be cut 12 percent to approximately $201 million for fiscal year 1982, which began Oct. 1. But it appears that DEA may get more, since both the House and Senate Budget Appropriation Committees have recommended DEA budgets of slightly more than $230 million for fiscal 1982, and some sort of compromise between the administrational and the committees appears likely.

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