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Marijuana's Violent Side

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 9, 1996; Page A01

Eric Lorenzo Dean was clutching a bag of marijuana and another lay a few feet away when he died June 5, shot in the back of the head on a Southwest Washington street. On Aug. 22, a Leesburg man was fatally shot just a block away. Police said he was there to buy marijuana.

Law enforcement officials say that as the drug has grown in popularity, with open-air markets such as the one in Southwest's Greenleaf Gardens drawing customers from nearby suburbs and beyond, deadly crimes -- more often associated with the sale of crack cocaine -- have become a routine part of the marijuana trade.

In the last 12 to 18 months, D.C. police officials say, there has been a marked escalation in marijuana-related homicides. Officials say they suspect that some are the result of feuding between Jamaican dealers from New York and local drug dealers. Others have occurred during robberies of prospective marijuana purchasers.

"It's unusual to see a lot of murders related to the marijuana trade," said Lt. Shannon Cockett of the District's homicide division.

But pockets of Southeast and Southwest Washington have experienced so much violence in the last year that an FBI task force is investigating several of the slayings.

In addition, U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the D.C. Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana.

"We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

Now, people arrested in the District and charged with distributing marijuana, even large quantities, face only misdemeanor charges, a standard that has sparked repeated complaints by police officers.

In June, a drug interdiction team seized 90 pounds of marijuana -- with a street value of about $500,000 -- at Union Station from an Amtrak train on the way to Richmond from New York. The suspect was charged with a misdemeanor. Prosecutors concede that charges involving several bags of marijuana routinely are dropped to control the number of cases they handle.

Many police officers say they believe that the lax treatment has allowed criminals to use and traffic in marijuana with impunity. At the same time, studies that show a significant rise in drug use among young people nationally are reflected in drug testing results from juveniles charged as delinquents in the District. For the first four months of this year, 61 percent of juveniles arrested in the city tested positive for marijuana use, up from 10 percent in 1991.

Partly to blame, officials said, is marijuana's long history of being glamorized in popular culture during the "flower power" movement of the 1960s and today on clothing and through songs. Legislators and law enforcement officials decided that because marijuana was not addictive, it was not as dangerous as other drugs. It was considered a minor crime in law enforcement, similar to underage drinking.

Though laws remained on the books, Jehru Brown, a drug expert who is a consultant to the D.C. police, said marijuana was effectively decriminalized in the District when the penalty for distributing the drug was reduced to a misdemeanor in the 1970s. Prosecutors began dropping marijuana charges except when the drug could be linked to some widespread conspiracy to commit other crimes. Narcotics investigators focused almost solely on PCP, cocaine and heroin, and more recently, crack cocaine.

"Marijuana became almost like the forgotten drug," said Brown, who spent 22 years investigating narcotics cases in the District. "When crack came into existence in 1984 . . . people actually believed that certain drugs had gone away. The fact is that [marijuana] had gone nowhere."

Marijuana has not displaced cocaine or heroin, police officials said. But the authorities contend that the severe criminal penalties for possessing even small amounts of those drugs have made marijuana -- with its minimal penalties -- more attractive to drug dealers.

Authorities say trafficking in illegal drugs has always spawned violence between opposing groups fighting for the right to set up shop in a particular area. When crack cocaine entered the local scene in the mid-1980s, turf wars caused homicides to skyrocket from fewer than 200 in 1986 to an all-time high of 489 in 1991.

D.C. officials began to take note of the rising marijuana problem more than a year ago when slayings -- of dealers and potential customers -- started to become more frequent. Seizures of marijuana increased. And homicide detectives and prosecutors began to notice more homicides that seemed to be linked to marijuana -- as in the case of Eric Dean, 25.

Dean was killed in the 200 block of I Street SW, one of the streets running through the Greenleaf housing complex, where residents report hearing gunshots nightly and say round-the-clock drug sales kick into overdrive at nightfall.

No one has been arrested in Dean's death, but police say they believe it was linked to selling marijuana. Court records show that in the 16 months before he died on June 5, Dean had been arrested five times on marijuana possession and distribution charges. He had been convicted only once, on May 1, of a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession -- he was charged with having eight grams of marijuana -- and sentenced to six months of supervised probation.

Dean's grandmother, Phyllis Martin, said in an interview that she does not know for certain that he was selling drugs but said her grandson "was out there."

"His mother used to beg him to come home, but when they start getting that fast money, they will not come home," said Martin, president of the resident council at the James Creek public housing complex in Southwest Washington.

Holder said he hopes to discourage some of that activity by being tougher on marijuana crimes. New guidelines should be in place by the end of the month, he said, noting that the District could learn from New York's "zero-tolerance" policy. There, crime plummeted when police aggressively enforced quality-of-life crimes, including panhandling and public drinking, which gave officers an opportunity to check for drugs, guns and outstanding warrants.

"If you take these so-called minor crimes seriously and treat them fully, it has a ripple effect," Holder said.

Holder's plans for stricter enforcement of marijuana laws, and his proposal to increase the penalties for trafficking in marijuana, come at the same time that Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner (D) has announced plans to treat more leniently low-level drug dealers and those found in possession of small amounts of drugs. Under Sonner's plan, those people would be directed into treatment programs rather than sent to prison.

Unlike in the District, however, possession of large quantities of marijuana is a felony in Maryland, punishable by a mandatory, five-year prison term for people convicted of possessing 50 pounds of marijuana with the intention of distributing it. In Virginia, distribution of more than five pounds of marijuana can result in a 30-year prison sentence.

Many District police officers said they would welcome a tougher approach to marijuana use and sales. Sgt. C.V. Morris of the 7th Police District's vice squad said police have few options now when they encounter youths engaged in small-time drug dealing or smoking marijuana-filled cigars -- known on the street as "blunts," after a popular style of cigar.

At a recent D.C. Department of Recreation go-go concert at Livingston and Valley streets SE, Morris and two other plainclothes colleagues came upon several groups of teenagers smoking marijuana, even though there were dozens of officers in uniform at the event. Morris instructed several teenagers to stomp out the cigars, sending them along with a lecture that smoking marijuana is illegal.

"Technically, we could take them all to jail," Morris said at the time. "But by the time we get the paperwork done, they're gone."

Officer Tommy Miller, who accompanied Morris that night, said that increased marijuana dealing has placed officers in more danger because they find more weapons on the streets. Miller said that in recent months, he has had to draw his service weapon at least once a week to deal with confrontations, many involving illegal drug activity.

Inspector Winston Robinson Jr., commander of the 7th Police District where Miller is assigned, said marijuana has emerged as the biggest drug in the far-flung area his officers patrol. And in the 7th District, the area where Galveston and Forrester streets converge in far Southwest presents the biggest problems. Robinson estimates there have been at least a dozen shootings this year in that area, which has many vacant apartments that often are used as hiding places for drugs.

In October, Robinson's officers posed near there as drug dealers and arrested people who bought phony drugs from them. In little more than an hour, Robinson said, the operation had to be halted because his officers already had arrested 70 people and had no place to hold additional suspects.

On the street, marijuana is big business, with a pound of marijuana (sold in $10 and $20 bags) worth about $6,000. "When the market increases, the competition among the retailers increases," Robinson said. "And there is an effort to eliminate competition."

But the dangers are not limited to the dealers. Police said "old-time stick-up boys" have targeted open-air markets, posing as drug dealers to rob unsuspecting customers.

Angel A. Monroy, 22, had driven with friends to the 200 block of I Street SW on May 15, 1995, to buy marijuana when he was shot in the back, police said. Sheldon Marbley Jr., who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Monroy's death, told police that he had asked another man selling drugs in the area if he could rob the next customer.

According to court records, the dealer told Marbley he could rob the potential client if the marijuana sale fell through. When Monroy and his friends didn't make a purchase, Marbley drew a gun and shot Monroy in the back. Monroy's companions drove him to a nearby convenience store and left him there, where he died.

"I just don't think," Robinson said, "that people are taking marijuana [use and trafficking] as seriously as they need to."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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