Drugs and D.C.: The Costs Are Both Obvious and Subtle

MUCH the way illicit drugs consume the abuser, they can consume a city: One in 40 Washingtonians is a cocaine addict, say city health officials.

People killed each other in this city at an unmatched pace last year - 483 murders, 41 percent of which were attributed to drugs. And the 1991 pace is a murder a day.

Newborn babies die here at more than double the rate that they do in the rest of the United States, a fact health officials attribute to drug abuse by pregnant women. Among the newborns that did live in 1990, 200 were abandoned at birth in hospitals by their addicted mothers.

Former Mayor Marion Barry, who cockily spouted anti-drug slogans as mayor while smoking cocaine, ruined his political career and dragged the city through racial acrimony last year over his cocaine abuse.

But those are just the headlines.

More telling are the ways drugs permeate so many of the mundane, everyday aspects of public life here.

Consider Johnny Thompson's light-bulb dilemma. The city housing department maintenance operations chief describes a costly, futile exercise to keep the common areas in the city's 12,000 units of public housing lighted. Drug dealers shoot bulbs out as soon as maintenance crews put them in - the better to do business in the shadows.

Drug dealing in the housing projects reached such a pace with the crack cocaine epidemic, says Mr. Thompson, that the usual twice-a-year bulb replacement has increased to once a month and would be once a week if it could be afforded. Costs for lights have roughly doubled to about $7,200 a month per complex.

Two years after this city became President Bush's national showcase for the biggest federal effort yet against drugs, Thompson's tone of grudging resignation is echoed in housing projects, hospitals, government offices, police precincts, and neighborhoods.

Perhaps in no American city is the drug-abuse problem as intense as it is in Washington. And certainly nowhere is it so surrealistically symbolic of the nation's social and institutional problems as it is here against the backdrop of world power.

``The drug culture is part and parcel of the very fabric of this city,'' says Bishop Felton E. May, assigned here by the United Methodist Church to develop a church strategy for dealing with the drug problem at the community level. In often unseen ways, from the dollars and cents bottom line of city budgets to the more intangible morale of a city, the effects of the drug problem touch everyone, though they may not know it, he says.

While public officials here talk tough about progress in the battle against drugs, and statistics show a slight dip in drug abuse, few speak of victory. They'd be hard pressed to find constituents who express confidence that the drug problem has budged much in response to the anti-drug special operations, task forces, and rhetoric from local and national ``drug czars.''

Beyond the basic stories of the drug user or dealer, this four-part series aims to tell the story of how deeply the drug culture has come to affect the city - and its responses to the problem.

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