For much of the last four years, a man who calls himself Michael Taylor said he "cooked" cocaine for doctors, lawyers and hardened criminals at "crack" houses in Washington and its suburbs.
Speaking behind a frosted glass screen and using an assumed name, Taylor told the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations at a hearing yesterday that he has made crack -- a highly potent form of cocaine -- at 10 crack houses in the metropolitan area that range from inner-city row houses to a luxury apartment in a high-rise building in Silver Spring.
"I do not exaggerate when I say cocaine is everywhere in Washington," said Taylor, a 29-year-old former addict and D.C. native who dropped out of junior high school. "It's easy to buy and easy to find a crack house to smoke it in."
What Taylor said he did was convert powdered cocaine into a pure form called base by heating it to remove impurities and other substances. The nearly pure cocaine was then smoked, creating a euphoric, short-lived high for clients who go to crack houses to buy and use the drug.
While cocaine smoking, called freebasing, has existed for at least 10 years, law enforcement officials are concerned that a new packaged, inexpensive form of freebase cocaine called crack or rock cocaine is beginning to be sold in the Washington area.
Crack sold in packets and vials for $10 to $25 each has become prevalent in a number of major cities -- particularly New York, Detroit and Los Angeles -- and is now beginning to show up in other parts of the country, according to law enforcement officials.
Bob O'Leary, a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's Washington district office, said crack and freebase cocaine purified at home or at crack houses are basically the same thing.
"There's nothing new about crack; it's just coming prepackaged like fast food, that's all," O'Leary said.
Although D.C. police officials said yesterday they are unaware of any crack houses in the city, such as those described by Taylor, they said crack is beginning to surface in the District.
"It is anticipated that crack addiction will cause an increase in crime in the Washington, D.C., area," said D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr.
Turner testified about cocaine use before two House committees yesterday.
O'Leary said it is common knowledge that there are crack houses operating in the area and that Alexandria police had raided several crack houses in recent months.
Sgt. John Brennan of the D.C. police narcotics division said police in the District have made arrests for possession of small quantities of crack.
"I think Taylor is exaggerating a little bit," Brennan said. "If it were on such a scale we'd hear about it."
Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), who called for yesterday's hearing, has introduced legislation that would stiffen criminal penalties for persons who possess, sell or manufacture one gram -- which is about 10 vials -- or more of crack.
Taylor said most of the clients at the Silver Spring crack house were well-heeled professionals and the proprietor would often accept checks as payment for crack.
He said persons who go to crack houses "enjoy the presence of other users. It's somewhat like alcohol consumers who like to drink in the company of other drinkers in a bar rather than at home alone. People smoke cocaine at crack houses because supplies such as pipes, screens and torches were provided."
In the days he worked as a cocaine cook, Taylor said, he earned between $100,000 and $200,000 a year and squandered it on clothes, drugs and gifts for girlfriends.
He said he became addicted to crack after using it twice.
At one point, he said, he spent $300 to $400 daily for his habit.
He said he has been off drugs for the last six months.
"I entered a drug program. I went off cocaine and other drugs cold turkey. I used no legal drugs to help me through withdrawal.
"But," he added, "not a day goes by that I don't think about drugs . . . . It is a battle I am sure I will wage with myself for the rest of my life."
Staff writer Zeynep Alemdar contributed to this report.