"Gold, gold, got that gold," chanted the dozen youths who lined the trash strewn 1400 block of Chapin Street NW. A green Camaro slowed down in front of one youth, the driver handed him $5, accepted a small manila envelope in return and drove on. "Gold, gold," other youths shouted as the car sped away.
The "gold" the youths were selling is "Acapulco gold," a popular type of marijuana. Other youths on Chapin Street sell marijuana that they say is from Colombia. A few sell "Angel Dust," an animal tranquilizer that they mix with embalming fluid, and "Purple Haze," an amphetamine. They all provide curb service to the hundreds of cars from the city and suburbs that drive through Chapin Street every day. $"This street is the McDonald's of the marijuana business," says Bonnie Johnson, who lives on Chapin Street. "People drive here to pick up their pot like it's fast food or something."
Police say more marijuana is peddled on one block-long Chapin Street than any other street in Washington. They estimate that between $10,000 and $20,000 worth of marijuana changes hands there each day.
Police have periodically made raids on Chapin Street and were parked there yesterday. Since Jan. 1, police have arrested 157 persons there on charges of possession of marijuana. Some of those are unemployed.Others are truck drivers, guards, car mechanics and students.
The marijuana peddlers who were arrested there ranged in age from 14 to 50, with most in their 20s. Five are women.
Two of the youths who were on Chapin Street this summer said they considered marijuana peddling their summer jobs.A high school senior who lives nearby said he earns about $30 a day selling marijuana. "You have to admit, it beats a $2.60 an hour job, he said.
Virtually all of those arrested are pot peddlers, not buyers. "We'd be wasting our time, going after the buyers," said one police officer. "No jury likes to convict someone for buying a nicel ( $5) bag of pot."
Police say that 10 years ago, marijuana was more commonly sold in people's homes -- a private transaction between friends. When it was sold on the streets, it was rarely hawked, as it is on Chapin Street today.
"Ever since the bleeding heart liberals of this country said that everyone smokes pot, it's been more blatant," said one narcotics squad detective. "People figure that nobody goes to jail for smoking pot."
Heroin is sold several blocks away from Chapin Street, along 14th Street NW, but the heroin peddlers are more surreptitious than the pot peddlers on Chapin Street. Users seek out heroin dealers on 14th Street and pay them there but do not obtain their heroin until later, when they meet the dealer or a partner on a side street.
The arrests on Chapin Street have not appeared to discourage the marijuana vendors. "The police make arrests one day and hours later they're out there again," says Johnson. "You can buy pot on this street from the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night, in the rain and in the snow," she adds.
Police say the Chapin Street marijuana peddlers are bolder than marijuana sellers on other streets, at times thrusting their hands through open car windows to display their merchandise.
Some of the peddlers live on Chapin Street, but most commute from other parts of the city and the suburbs.
The commuter peddlers tend to cluster toward the ends of Chapin Street, near 14th and 15th Streets, where they get first crack at potential customers.
The Chapin Street residents who sell marijuana tend to stand in the middle of the block, in front of apartment houses. They rarely chant the "got that gold" refrain. Instead, they take the soft-sell approach, and wait for their regular customers to seek them out.
"Feel how much there is in this nickel bag," says a 17-year-old Chapin Street resident. "I give my customers a lot for their money's worth. Then I tell them to ask for me next time they come. They always remember."
He said he sometimes argues with the commuters for taking all the new customers. But it does not really trouble him. He has enough old customers. And besides, he says, when the police come, the chanting commuters will be the first to get arrested. "They are right out there on the firing line," he said. "I'm pretty safe."
Most marijuana customers on Chapin Street purchase "nickel bags," or $5 packets of marijuana. Each packet contains enough marijuana for about six cigarettes. An ounce of marijuana, which is about 14 "nickel bags," sells for $45 on Chapin Street.
A street peddler earns about $2 on each $5 packet of marijuana, and about $20 on each $45 ounce bag, according to a former Chapin Street marijuana peddler.
Neither police nor residents know precisely how Chapin Street became the major marketplace of the city's outdoor marijuana trade. But the legend among dealers is that Chapin Street began earning its reputation about four years ago when an apartment dweller on the block began selling marijuana for about half the usual street price. He sold it from his apartment -- first, to people in his building, then to their friends and other apartment dwellers up and down the street.
After about a year, some of his customers decided to start their own businesses. One of the first things they did was to steal the man's customers. They would stand in the lobby of the apartment building, offering marijuana to people before they knocked on the door of his apartment.
Other entrepreneurs set up shop outside the apartment building, and began offering "gold" and "good smoke" to potential customers of the apartment lobby crowd.
At the time, other Chapin Street residents did not complain about the marijuana peddling in front of the apartment building. Some ignored it; others were unaware of it. Police rarely arrested anyone on Chapin Street for possession of marijuana.
But last October, after police disrupted blatant marijuana peddling on Condon Terrace and Hartford Street in Southeast Washington, about a mile from the Prince George's County line, hordes of youths began to commute to Chapin Street to do business. Since the marijuana leaders who lived on Chapin Street had staked out the territory in front of their apartment buildings, the commuters took over the ends of the block. To build up business, the newcomers began to shout "got that gold" at drivers. When that didn't work, they began throwing packets of marijuana into cars, urging drivers to "Try it! Try it!"
Now, residents of Chapin Street resent the marijuana peddlers. Johnson, who rents a house there, said she does not want her children to see the "role model" of the drug pusher. "I try to keep my kids in the back of the house so they don't see the kids selling pot in the front."
Another resident, a woman who lives in an apartment and works as a secretary for a nearby social service group, said the marijuana peddlers have brought so much traffic to the street that she has had trouble parking her car. "I used to come around 15th and turn on Chapin but I don't do that anymore," she says. "There'd be so many cars parked and so many cars lined up doing business, I couldn't get through."
Since April, Chapin Street residents have been asking Mayor Marion Barry and police for foot patrol officers to discourage the drug trafficking in front of their houses. On Friday, after a reporter made inquiries, police spokesman Joe Gentile told Robert King of the 14th Street Community Project that foot patrol officers were "on the way."
King and other members of the 14th Street Community Project met with acting U.S. Attorney Carl Rauh Thursday to request stiff sentences for persons convicted of marijuana charges on Chapin Street. Rauh invited Chapin Street residents to come to court on the days of sentencing to ask the judge for stiff penalties.