Cocaine, urban `glamour' drug, moves to America's backroads. Its rise helped by cheaper price, and super-efficient distribution

``There's more cocaine here than sugar,'' drawls Ellsworth Police Chief Albert Carter, pulling a wad of the confiscated white powder from his desk drawer. ``If you wanted to go buy an ounce or two,'' he says, ``it wouldn't be no job 't'all.'' In the past year, cocaine use has shot up in this quiet coastal town of 5,300, just 50 miles from the Canadian border. And cocaine has even spread inland, to the tiny communities that dot the rolling hills of rural Maine.

``There are still a lot of people who won't admit we got a problem,'' says Chief Carter. ``They still think it's a problem from [outside the state]. . . . But the thing has swept the countryside.''

The sentiments of the burly chief are echoed in small towns and rural areas across the United States. The ``elitist'' drug, say cocaine experts, is no longer confined to the nation's cities and suburbs.

In terms of sheer numbers, the rural drug problem seems minor compared to that of urban areas.

Take the statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which tallies the rate of illegal-drug arrests in urban and rural areas. In 1985, for every 100,000 inhabitants, officials arrested an average of 125 people in urban areas for cocaine and heroin-related offenses, compared to just 24 in rural counties.

Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher who conducts the annual High School Senior Survey, offers more figures: In the nation's 12 largest cities, 19 percent of all 1985 high school seniors said they had used cocaine in the past year, while in areas outside the metropolitan areas, only 9 percent had used the drug.

Certainly, cocaine is still the most urban of all illicit drugs. But despite the disparity, cocaine is causing as much -- or more -- concern in small-town America.

The spread of cocaine -- which mirrors and may surpass the proliferation of marijuana two decades ago -- is facilitated, experts say, by falling costs and a super-efficient distribution system.

``Cocaine used to be an elitist drug,'' says Ira H. Cisin, director of the social research group at George Washington University, and a specialist on drug trends. ``That's changing. As long as it keeps getting less expensive, it is more attractive to all strata'' of American society.

Others agree. Cocaine use has ``begun to settle -- like any other drug -- in the underclass,'' says Mr. Clayton, a professor at the University of Kentucky. Even in the rural areas surrounding the campus in Lexington, people are aware of cocaine and can get it anytime, he says. While drug enforcement agents seal off the nation's borders and coastlines, he observes, drug smugglers have little difficulty flying the cocaine into America's heartland.

Cocaine traffickers have ``an especially good distribution system in areas where you wouldn't expect it -- like rural areas,'' says Mr. Cisin. ``It's not surprising in cities, but it turns up in the strangest places.''

Like the backwoods of Maine. ``You wonder how a little community with just 10 houses and a bus stop gets cocaine,'' says Richard Korbett, medical director at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville. ``But it's everywhere.'' Of the 500 patients his chemical dependency unit treated last year, he estimates that one-third had cocaine-related problems. And nearly all of those patients, he says, came from rural communities.

``We can build a 100-foot wall around our kids and the drug dealers will just build a 110-foot ladder over it,'' says Barbara Kopans of the Governor's Alliance Against Drugs in Massachusetts. ``You can just go so far with police enforcement before you have to start looking at the demand side.''

In Maine, cocaine suppliers are almost impossible to stop. Given the state's 60 unguarded border crossings, over 200 deserted landing strips, and 3,500 miles of craggy coastline, illegal drugs can flow into Down East territory by land, by air, or by sea.

So while a handful of agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and the state police's narcotics unit struggle to stamp out cocaine smuggling, state and local officials have banded together to quell the demand. Last month, US Attorney Richard Cohen formed two new cocaine task forces to ``deal directly with the demand'' in rural counties.

``We're at the tip of the iceberg,'' says Mr. Cohen. ``But we've got the right mechanism now.''

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