Originally created 03/31/02

And in the end

Not everything that comes in a bag of cocaine grows in South American coca fields.

Before passing it on to customers, dealers typically "step on it" - chopping down cocaine chunks into a fine powder and mixing in other powders, including medicines, vitamins and baking soda. It increases the bulk and jacks up the profit margin.

Nicholas Mims, once a midlevel drug dealer who operated out of a rental house and a storage shed off Wrightsboro Road, says he came up with a recipe so good his clients liked the cut stuff better. He used vitamin B-12 and quinine sulfate, a drug used to treat malaria and leg cramps. Tinkering with it whenever he was at home and bored, he would finally get the cocaine a buttery color.

"Quinine sulfate is actually a numbing agent. It's used in heroin, too," Mr. Mims said. "That quinine hits you instantly, so when you snort it, it'd feel like you wanted to swallow your tongue. You go so numb you can't feel your face."

Mr. Mims spoke in a visiting room at the Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution, where he is in his second year of a five-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines.

Before his arrest, Mr. Mims said, he had about 40 dealers who depended on his supply. He was one of the first dominoes to fall in the line that led to the breakup of convicted kingpin Robert "Fat Boy" Snell's multimillion-dollar operation.

Mr. Mims said he's certain another dealer has stepped up to take his place and Mr. Snell's. The drug war can't be won by fighting supply, he said.

"No, it won't never stop," Mr. Mims said. "At the level I was at, the money was more addicting than anything."

There's a lot of money tied up in the drug war. Taxpayers spend millions fighting it, while dealers net millions in profits.

Last year, the United States spent $493 billion on crime, illnesses, medical care and deaths caused by illegal drugs. Georgia spends $44 million a year to clean up the wreckage, but no state funds are spent on prevention, according to a recent report from the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.

Pundits say the war has been a waste, but law enforcement officials say the battles are worth fighting. That dealers are beefing up their product suggests that victories are being won, says Pat Clayton, an agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. It means supply must not be getting through, because dealers are putting additives in crack, supposedly cocaine in its purest form.

"I've heard some people say, 'Well, the price is still the same, so we don't think (police are) doing as good a job.' Well, that's not necessarily true because the price may still be the same as it was in the mid-'90s, but the street purity has gone down," Agent Clayton said.

Paying the price

In the Augusta area, the drug war has been hitting taxpayers in subtle ways that are difficult to measure.

Of the 2,322 cases that came through Richmond County Superior Court in 2001, 41 percent involved drug charges, with cocaine a factor in 27 percent. But District Attorney Danny Craig estimates that 90 percent involved narcotics in one way or another, whether it was a robbery committed to buy drugs, an assault because the perpetrator was under the influence of drugs or a beating because the victim sold bad drugs.

In addition to salaries for prosecutors and judges, such heavy caseloads require more courtrooms. The city is expected to spend $20 million in special purpose local option sales tax funds to expand the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building into a judicial complex.

"That's just another cost. In that case, you're dealing with higher taxes in order to fund the governmental units necessary to deal with the addiction," Mr. Craig said.

The costs continue to mount after prosecution. Officials estimate it costs $42 a day to house an inmate, and empty cells are a rarity in local jails.

In both the Richmond and Columbia County jails, administrators say most inmates are there because they sell or abuse drugs. The Richmond County Sheriff's Office is hoping for $2.5 million to expand its Phinizy Road facility in 2003. A new jail under construction in Columbia County has a $13 million price tag.

The human cost

For the daughter of a prominent Augusta surgeon, what had seemed like innocent dabbling in drugs in high school snowballed when she left home for college. At one point, she says, she snorted cocaine every day, drank alcohol and popped LSD and Ecstasy.

After an unwanted pregnancy and three arrests, the 22-year-old is back home with her parents. Rehabilitation and legal fees wiped out her family's savings and put them $100,000 in debt, her mother said.

Her mother has gone back to work, and she fears that she and her husband will have to sell their home.

"We put too much pressure on her," she said. "We wanted her to be a doctor like her father.

"Last year, our goal was to get her through the year alive."

Her daughter has found help at Least of These Souls Ministries at Fleming Church of God, where Director Betty Crenshaw's treatment involves prayer and spiritual healing. Psychiatrists and medications aren't working, Ms. Crenshaw said.

Mainstream options for addicts looking to get clean are dwindling in Augusta. In the past two years, treatment centers, including Charter Rehabilitation and the child and adolescent program at University Hospital's Behavioral Health Centers, have closed.

"What happened a number of years ago is that insurance companies began to curtail the payments, and so the private services were hurt pretty badly," said Andrew McCollum, the executive director of the Region 12 Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Board.

Last month, Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia dropped a detoxification service in favor of an outpatient program focused on preventing relapse. Halfway houses such as Hope House have waiting lists.

Fighting supply

Most of the drugs bought and sold in Augusta arrive by way of Atlanta or South Florida, according to Agent Clayton. Major traffickers send couriers to retrieve it, he said. DEA officials train state and local police to look for trucks hauling large loads of drugs.

Richmond County Sheriff's Lt. Robert Partain, whose department is working with the District Attorney's Office on a campaign to take down crack houses, said the work can be frustrating. Officers often work hard to clean up an area only to see the problem return.

"I am not saying that the drug war has been the greatest victory for any of us in law enforcement," he said. "But we have taken some major dealers off."

An estimated 80 percent of Augusta's drug cases are built through informants, who cooperate with police in exchange for light sentences.

After a raid on his home, Mr. Mims told police about his suppliers and wore a wire for a conversation with Mr. Snell at Logan's Roadhouse. The kingpin told Mr. Mims he could arrange an escape to Acapulco, Mexico, where Mr. Mims could live out the rest of his life. Mr. Mims said he doesn't believe that was Mr. Snell's intention.

For his cooperation, a judge reduced Mr. Mims' original sentence of nine years and four months to five years.

Mr. Mims wouldn't say how much money he made as a dealer. He says he's not proud of what he did and doesn't want to encourage others to enter the profession.

"It wasn't worth this. All the places, all the parties, all the girls, all the jewelry, the clothes and the cars, none of it was worth this," he said. "You couldn't pay me a million dollars a year to come sit here."

History of "coke"

Cocaine was first synthesized in the 1850s. Until the early 1900s, it was mixed into tonics and medicines, and it was a key ingredient in the original Coca-Cola. It was promoted by neurologist Sigmund Freud, and used by Sherlock Holmes in an Arthur Conan Doyle story. Its dangers became clearer, and the United States made cocaine illegal in 1920. Crack cocaine appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Snorting became chic in the mid-1980s.

Cost of abuse

A report by the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse says the later an addict receives treatment, the more the costs to a community grow. Using a figure of $2,400 as the annual cost of drug treatment for one person, the report gives the following costs a community will pay if intervention happens at these levels:

  • $9,000: If the addict is employed and does drugs, figuring in an increase in the cost of goods
  • $27,672: If the addict loses his job and walks out on his family, leaving them on public assistance
  • $28,372: If the addict goes to a homeless shelter and stays for 20 days, paid by city taxes
  • $33,172: If the addict goes to a hospital and stays for three days, figuring in higher insurance costs
  • $35,163: If the addict commits a burglary
  • $60,193: If the addict goes to prison for a one-year sentence, figuring in federal and state income taxes
  • The scope

    According to 2001 estimates by the Region 12 Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Board, 6.9 percent of Richmond County's adult and adolescent population and 8.1 percent of Columbia County's adult and adolescent population is in need of substance abuse treatment.

    Of the total in the two counties estimated to be in need of substance abuse treatment through public services, only 10 percent were treated.

    Staff Writers Greg Rickabaugh and Tom Corwin contributed to this article.

    Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.


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