U.S. drug czar John Walters drove through some of the city's roughest streets Tuesday night and watched firsthand how authorities in Houston - a national gateway for narcotics - fight the problem.
His prime-time tour of Houston drug markets is part of a new White House drug-control office initiative to scrutinize anti-drug efforts in the nation's top 25 cities.
During his two-day stay, Walters also will review local efforts to combat Houston's drug problem and attempt to coordinate strategies among state, local and federal officials.
"This is an area that has been hit very hard by crack cocaine," Walters said Tuesday night. "Other areas have seen their crack cocaine rates decline. But there is an intensity of the problem here in Houston that we want to look at."
Riding in an unmarked convoy of two sedans and two sport utility vehicles, Walters and members of the Houston Police Department's anti-gang squad inspected the Trinity Gardens neighborhood, a top workplace for gangs selling drugs, just outside Houston's Fifth Ward. Today, Walters will meet with civic and law enforcement leaders to discuss area drug prevention and treatment programs as well as anti-drug patrols.
Houston is the 13th city in the tour, and Walters planned to share intelligence and innovations from other cities visited that could work here. For example, Walters praised Miami for having an "established, organized coalition" of police and community leaders to stop drug sales and develop rehabilitation programs.
Experts say Houston can use the feedback. It has all the drug problem elements as other big cities, plus it faces additional problems because of its proximity to Mexican and Colombian cartels that traffic through Mexico. In addition, police say drug sales here have turned some simple street gangs into covert, organized money makers.
"When it comes to drugs, if you want it, you can find it in Houston," said Douglas Adkinson, deputy chief of staff for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.
On Tuesday night, Walters drove through an area so notorious for drug deals that private tow trucks cruise there, awaiting inevitable police action. When someone gets busted, tow trucks drag away his car.
In a neighborhood full of government housing projects -- some abandoned -- and single-family homes, Walters rode with two other Houston officials -- Houston Police Department Lt. Milton Jones and police intelligence officer Troy Buchanan.
Jones told Walters that residents here are glad police patrol the area, but won't say so because they fear retaliation from gangs. For the same reason, most store owners who sell cigarettes, liquor and goceries won't help either, Jones said.
"They're just trying to make a living," Jones said.
In Trinity Gardens, their car and others in the convoy flushed a few crack deals going down, plainclothes officers already on duty chased the suspects.
Later, they turned down another street. "You're going to start to see turf wars right here," Buchanan warned.
Houston officials hope to convince Walters to raise the already substantial federal funding to the city's anti-drug programs. The Houston area got $47 million for state and local anti-drug programs in 2002, the last year for which there are complete figures. Most of the $12.5 billion the government spent on anti-drug efforts goes to state and local prevention programs, Walters said.
Houston spends about $10 million for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Initiative -- a program aimed at bringing together federal, state and local agencies to focus on drug cartels and important local dealers.
Stan Furce, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who heads the Houston HIDTA office, said the group targets Mexican cartel cells responsible for funneling a high percentage of the illegal drugs reaching Houston. He said the group also focuses on local gangs and major dealers.
Furce said Walters' visit "can help us focus, adopt strategies that have worked elsewhere and share what is working here."
"It is also a chance to whine about dollars - to point out our funding has been level since 1997, which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to a reduction," Furce added.
The biggest chunk of federal money - more than $18 million in 2002 - funds substance abuse prevention and treatment grants. Another $8 million is divided among area school districts for anti-drug programs.
"At worst, this will give us hope that we're on the right track with what we are doing, and re-energize everyone to continue the work we're doing," said Ray Andrews, program manager for Houston Crackdown, an anti-drug program within Mayor Bill White's office.
"Houston still has a big crack cocaine problem. We're seeing methamphetamine abuse, experimental drugs like ecstasy, and a lot of under-age drinking," Andrews added. "I'd like to say we are holding steady, but who knows what is on the horizon?"
Adkinson, along with other Houston area officials and advocates involved in drug treatment and prevention, has been working to identify ways to improve the region's anti-drug efforts in advance of the Walters visit.
Adkinson is among area anti-drug experts who will pitch new initiatives to Walters while he is in town, while looking for ways to improve existing programs.
One such idea is to set up a communications network among area hospitals and health care clinics to share real-time information about any potential substance crisis.
"A few years ago we had some bad heroin hitting the street. Eventually, about 20 people died," Adkinson said. "It took awhile for that information to make the rounds."
Under the proposal, generic information about drug abusers that did not violate their medical privacy rights would be sent immediately to other health facilities. That information would be held in a regional substance abuse research office set up at a local university or elsewhere.
"That information could be helpful in spotting drug trends," Adkinson said. It would be an upgrade of existing Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, programs, he said.
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