May 22—ASHLAND — The drug trade isn't like in the movies, where two men dressed in three-piece suits meet in an abandoned parking lot and exchange a brief case of money for a satchel filled with dope.
In the life outside of gangster flicks, it's a lot more complicated, according to North East Kentucky Drug Task Force Officer McDavid.
It can be grimy; it can tough. There's violence and there's always the constant worry that at any point, the blue lights will flash and the run will come to an end.
McDavid is one of the men with the flashing blue lights — he makes his living day-in and day-out tracking down the purveyors of poison in this community.
The actual mechanics of the drug trade, according to McDavid, is akin to a pyramid scheme, "one that actually turns a profit."
Start of the chain
McDavid likes to break it down into tiers — on the lowest tier is the consumer of narcotics. The addict, the junkie. From the time their eyelids flick open to when they lay their head down at night, there's only thing on their mind: how to get well.
"They need to get that fix, so that's where a lot of petty crimes and some assaults happen," the drug cop said. "If there's a bag in the house where a bunch of them are staying and somebody tries to sneak some, there's going to be a fight."
He calls them "Wi-Fi Warriors," men and women constantly searching the city on foot or bike for an internet connection, so they can get that text out to their hookup for that fix.
"The guy they're calling, he usually has a big habit himself," McDavid said. "Most of the time, everyone's pitching in $20, $20, $20, $20 and he's just the one who has a connection."
That guy is probably only buying 4 or 5 grams of dope, according to McDavid. The guy he's getting it from is only buying an ounce at a time. The ounce dudes, they're generally also on the needle — in these levels, anyone who is selling dope is probably putting the profit in their arm.
As the amounts go up and the drugs are more plentiful, McDavid said the problems get bigger — a street-level addict might get in a scuffle and lose a wallet or a cell phone. The dealer supplying that addict might get shorted when he goes to his connection. His connection might let someone borrow his car to pick up some drugs and lose it in a traffic stop.
"The problems are pretty much the same, but the value of property they lose keeps increasing," McDavid said.
However, when you start talking pounds, McDavid said the nature of the dealer changes, too — the dealers aren't typically using. And they're more violent, too — a mentality McDavid ascribes to the poverty of the area. Where a rip-off might warrant a whipping in the big city, around here McDavid said it can turn into gunfire.
"Most big cities, a pound of dope is a pound of dope. If you lose a pound, you know you can make it back up pretty quick," he said. "Around here, there's that mentality of having to fight every day for what you have in eastern Kentucky — the same goes for drugs, too.
"The pound dealer looks at it like this — he worked too hard for that pound," he continued. "You got to think, getting a re-up isn't simple. They have to get a car that is clean and isn't connected with them, because they've blasted their ride all over social media. Then at best it's a six-hour round trip to Louisville — some parts of Tennessee, it can be 14 hours."
Going into the cities — or even occasionally the hub towns of Huntington and Charleston around here — the pound dealers are buying a stash house. Here's where McDavid said a gang can come into play; if the drugs are being sourced through gang connections, the stash house is being controlled by that particular gang.
But around here, if a stash house is set up, McDavid said he's typically seen a different method use. They'll employ an older person with a substance abuse problem keep an eye on the drugs. Then they'll have a guy there to make sure nothing hokey goes on.
'Got stuff, got money'
The deals, according to McDavid, get real professional all of the sudden. It's a quick in and out, no waiting around for the dealer to show up.
"You know, when you're doing a low-level deal, it can take an hour or two to for the guy to show up, because everyone's a fiend and they won't come of it," McDavid said. "So the user ends up meeting the guy in a bathroom, giving him the money and hoping he'll come back with it."
On that pound level, the deals only take a matter of minutes.
"It's pretty much, 'you got the stuff? I got the money.' And they exchange it and go," he said. "That's it."
The stash house gets supplied from smugglers out west, McDavid said. These are the big boys in the drug market — they frequently keep cash-heavy businesses to clean the cash. They usually have a record — because at one point, McDavid noted, they weren't too smart with their crimes.
"They're smart and they're high-risk, which makes a dangerous combination," McDavid said. "At that level, it's pure business. They don't want to do anything to attract the heat. But if someone rips them off, they'll make a show of force."
McDavid likens it to a snake — a snake can bite you, even kill you. But its first reaction is just to get away and be hidden.
"If they hear somebody in the trafficking organization is beefing with Joe-Schmo civilian, they're going to be ticked," he said. "They don't want to anything that causes smoke. They want to stay in the shadows, away from everything."
They're insulated, McDavid said. There's plenty of people down the chain from them, so they keep up with who is getting locked up, who could possibly become a liability.
"If someone starts using, they'll get pushed out," he said. "On the first three tiers, it's pretty much a given that everyone's using. But when you get up there, using becomes a liability. You might have someone who has a vise for a mouth and won't say anything. They're loyal, they'll do anything for the guy on top."
McDavid continued, "But the needle is stronger than relationships. If they know they're going to jail, they're going to get sick, they will do everything they can to make sure that doesn't happen. They'll give up who ever they need to give up to avoid jail."
The guy at the top of the chain, according to McDavid, either makes the runs himself to the border or they arrange it. They usually get a car with clean tags and a driver with no record. They run in convoys, according to the drug cop.
"The idea is, they'll have one in the back that's clean, another one in with the drugs and another with the money," McDavid said. "Most of the time, the car in the back is the one getting pulled over. If one of the other cars get pulled over, then the cops either get the drugs and don't get the money, or they get the money and can't tie it to anything."
Usually a run out west entails going into Mexico for the drugs, either heroin or meth. After all, there are not acres upon acres of poppy fields in eastern Kentucky, nor is there large-scale meth production — most of the local brew is the shake-and-bake variety in a pop bottle.
Up north, the fentanyl and the prescription pills flow in from Canada and make their way through Detroit, McDavid said. Since the days of doctor shopping are by and large gone, another source becoming more frequent is acquiring prescription pills from inside pharmaceutical warehouses.
"I've worked cases where they've obviously had somebody on the inside," he said.
While some of the top-level drug dealers might live in mansions with pet tigers, or others might prefer a modest, middle-class home in an effort to conceal their living, McDavid said they, like the addict barely scraping by on the street, still have one thing in common — they live in fear.
"I've interviewed some far-up guys and they've told me they're tired," McDavid said. "They were tired of always wondering if this deal is the one that pops them. They constantly live in fear of when it comes to an end."
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece is part of a large-scale, ongoing series that includes features related to the opioid crisis.