Princess, a heavyset, 23-year-old blond prostitute, shivered from the cold in the courtyard of a three-storey rooming house in Toronto’s west end. The white-painted brick house was once an elegant Victorian apartment building. But now many of its windows are boarded up, and most of the tenants have moved out. To the prostitutes, pimps, drug pushers and addicts who inhabit the seedy neighborhood, the half-gutted shell is known as the “White Elephant”—a drug den, where narcotics users smoke “crack”—a highly addictive cocaine derivative—or inject cocaine. It is 1 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, and in spite of the fact that Princess is nine months pregnant, she is still a frequent customer at the White Elephant between sexual encounters with clients in parked cars or hotel rooms. She whistles, and a man with a deeply scarred face lets her in.
The White Elephant—one of about 200 crack houses, or drug dens, that police estimate have sprung up in Toronto during the past year—is part of a hellish underworld that few Torontonians ever see. Often set up in public housing projects or in abandoned buildings on residential streets, crack houses are open for business 24 hours a day. Usually, they move to a new location every two or three weeks to avoid detection by police. Most crack house operators open their doors only to underworld regulars and they maintain tight security with guns and other weapons. The drug dens are a lucrative business. Police officers say that one crack house operator who invests his drug profits in real estate has purchased 12 properties in the past 18 months.
Addicted: According to Princess, the White Elephant is the regular den for as many as 15 prostitutes who work in the area. She acknowledged that she has been “banging,” or injecting, cocaine since she was 13—and that most of the $400 to $500 she earns in a night goes to support her drug habit. “Every girl who works the street goes into the Elephant steady—like every hour,” she added. Most of them, she said, “are banging” cocaine, rather than inhaling the drug, the practice of many cocaine users. Princess is addicted to cocaine and she says that her doctor has told her that when her baby is born, he will be a cocaine addict as well.
On that particular night, the scar-faced man at the Elephant leads Princess up an unlighted staircase and into a second-floor kitchen he shares with another tenant. The furniture consists of three overturned milk crates, and the floor is strewn with garbage. Dan, who rents a room in the building for $120 per month, does not sell drugs himself. But he allows pushers to
sell narcotics on his premises in exchange for free “hits,” or injections, of cocaine. The dealer—an unshaven, long-haired man in a dark coat—is already in the apartment. Princess buys half a gram of cocaine for $60. She then mixes some of the white powder with water in a spoon. After dissolving the cocaine, Princess
removes the filter from a cigarette and dips it into the spoon. She says that this will remove impurities in the drug.
Needle: Then Princess fills a hypodermic syringe with liquid, rolls up her sleeve and inserts the needle into a place on her arm where a large scab has formed from repeated injections. “I’m lucky tonight,” Princess explains, scattering cigarette ashes on the black sweater that covers her protruding belly. “Usually it takes me two or three tries to find the vein.”
After a few minutes, Princess turns her attention to “cooking” some crack—a process that involves placing a mixture of cocaine, bak-
ing soda and water in a spoon and using a cigarette lighter to heat the mixture. As the murky liquid hardens, Princess gathers particles of crack on the end of a small steel nail. After collecting enough of the tiny “rocks” of crack, she prepares to smoke them. Because of a federal law enacted in September, 1988, that outlawed the sale of drug paraphernalia, the small pipes used for smoking cocaine and other drugs are now difficult to obtain. As a result, Princess uses the nail to poke holes in a dented soft-drink can. Then she places the “rocks” of crack on a bed of cigarette ash spread over the perforations to act as a screen. As she ignites the crack and draws the smoke through the small hole at the mouth of the can, the tiny rocks sizzle and the stale room is filled with the bitter odor of crack.
Raids: So far, Toronto police have been moderately successful in battling crack houses. In the past eight months, police have raided 16 of them in one section of the city’s west end alone. Still, many of the dens have remained in business while the charges resulting from the raids drag through the courts. Drug squad officers say that they know the location of most of the drug dens, including the White Elephant. But they often are unable to raid known crack houses because they lack the evidence that judges require before they will issue search warrants.
While they wait for warrants, police officers sometimes keep crack houses under observation in order to gain more information about the underworld figures who frequent them. When Princess visited the White Elephant last month, she admitted that she felt nervous because she expected that the place would soon be raided. “It hasn’t been taken down yet,” she said. “But it’s gonna go down.” With that, she lifted her sweater, tucked three new syringes into her brassiere and headed out into the night to turn another trick—and earn the money for another hit.
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