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Drug Safety

Like most parts of the country, Washington, DC is not immune to the problems caused by illegal drugs and activity in its neighborhoods. Nearly every aspect of American life and every community within the US has been affected in one way or another by the business of manufacturing, transporting, selling, purchasing, and abusing illegal drugs. As a resident, parent, or just a caring citizen, it's valuable to know a little about the illegal drug trade that has become a common part of life in many metropolitan areas.

Identification and Risks of Common Street Drugs

Below are some of the most common drugs in Washington, DC. Click on each to download a brochure in PDF format that describes the risks of using each.

  • Phencyclidine (PCP) [PDF]
  • Methamphetamine [PDF]
  • Marijuana [PDF]
  • Cocaine [PDF]
  • Heroin [PDF]
  • MDMA/Ecstasy [PDF]

The Controlled Substances Act

Chapter 13 of Title 21 of the US Code provides the foundation for the nation’s laws related to illegal substances and drugs. It is commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act, or "CSA," and divides drugs into five "schedules" (I, II, III, IV, and V) based on the degree of severity of addiction and abuse, medical usage, and dependence associated with it.


  • Schedule I: The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and lacks the accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.
  • Schedule II: The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, but has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions. However, abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
  • Schedule III: The drug or other substance has a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II; it has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. However, abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.
  • Schedule IV: The drug or other substance has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III. It has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III.
  • Schedule V: The drug or other substance has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule IV. It has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Abuse of the drug or other substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule IV.
  • Most of the drugs common in the illegal drug trade are found in Schedule I (including MDMA, LSD, heroin, GHB, cannabis) or Schedule II (cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, phencyclidine [PCP], and opium/opiates such as morphine and oxycodone).

Drug Trends in Our Neighborhoods

Drug sales can take many forms, some more obvious than others. As a resident, you may notice some aspects of the illegal drug trade, but other signs are not as immediately apparent.

Street Corner Drug Sales

The lowest end of the drug trade involves street corner drug transactions. These are often areas where drug dealers and their buyers congregate. They also tend to be the areas known to be frequented by substance abusers. Because these activities can lead to other types of crime, such as burglary, street robberies, assaults, and sometimes homicide (often between rival drug dealers over turf or failed drug deals), it is imperative that they be addressed before the activity becomes entrenched. To effectively combat the problem, police rely on observant citizens to report suspicious activity when they see it.

Business Front Drug Sales

Some illegal drug sales occur through businesses and storefronts. The proprietors of these businesses may have a criminal history and support the drug trafficking industry either directly or indirectly, or they may be victims of local drug dealers and inadvertently engaged in the illegal activity. Some businesses become dependent on foot traffic generated by the drug trade.

Who Sells Drugs in Our Communities?

There are three main types of sellers in the United States when it comes to illegal drugs.

  • Drug trafficking organizations are complex organizations with highly defined command-and-control structures that produce, transport, and/or distribute large quantities of one or more illicit drugs.
  • Criminal groups operating in the United States are numerous and range from small to moderately sized, loosely knit groups that distribute one or more drugs at the retail level and midlevel.
  • Gangs are defined by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators' Associations as groups or associations of three or more persons with a common identifying sign, symbol, or name, the members of which individually or collectively engage in criminal activity that creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation

Neighborhood-based street gangs, or local "crews" are the principal retail illicit drug distributors in the District, particularly for crack cocaine and heroin. Street-level dealers are now distributing MDMA in addition to powder and crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and PCP at various open-air drug markets.

Negative Effects of Drug Sales and Activity

Drug sales can often draw other illegal activity to an area, such as prostitution or drug-related gang violence. Each vice can facilitate more criminal activity and draw in those at risk or vulnerable, such as youth. When a student becomes truant, he or she may be further influenced by these negative behaviors and join "the life" or become crime victims themselves.


How You Can Help

The most important thing you can do as a resident is to share information and report suspicious activity. Your tip could be valuable in making a case, identifying drug drops, lookouts, or other critical elements in the drug dealer's sphere of influence.

You can share your information anonymously by calling (888) 919-2746 (CRIME) or texting to 50411. If you need police response immediately, call 911. Information you share may also be eligible for a cash reward for certain types of crimes.

What to Look For

  • Continuous, unexplained traffic at the residence throughout the day and night
  • Locations of drug dealing often become central gathering spots for users and dealers, which may result in additional criminal activity that would not otherwise be present
  • Some businesses are dependent on foot traffic from drug dealing to survive, but not taking steps to remove the presence of drug dealers can lead to greater problems for the whole community. Legitimate businesses will want to cooperate to help remove the threat that drug dealing presents to the neighborhood.
  • Abandoned automobiles, houses, and other places can be signals that a community is being targeted or tested by drug traffickers.
  • Vandalism and graffiti let dealers know that no one is paying attention.
  • Excessive trash helps dealers find places to hide stashes and paraphernalia.
  • Non-working streetlights provide dark spots for criminals to operate.


Resources for Parents

If you have a young person in your life who you believe may be using or considering using drugs, there are many ways you can get involved and help them take positive steps in their lives. The first step is being an involved, concerned parent. Most teens interviewed about why they turn to drugs or other harmful behaviors say that they don't feel that anyone cares about them. Taking a moment just to ask your child how their day is going, what they are doing after school, or how their school work is progressing can have long-lasting impacts on your child's development and psyche.

You are the first line of defense when it comes to your child's drug use or drinking habits. You are the difference maker!

Tips for Parents

Here are some things you may consider doing to help keep your children safe and free from drugs.

  • Set Rules. Let your child know alcohol and drug use is unacceptable in your family.
  • Enforce stated consequences when family rules are broken.
  • Know where your teens are and what will they be doing during unsupervised time.
  • Talk to your child. Casually ask how things are going at school, with friends, and his plans for the future.
  • Keep your teens busy, especially between 3 pm to 6 pm and into evening hours.
  • Teens who are involved in constructive, adult supervised activities are less likely to use drugs than other teens.
  • Take time to learn the facts about marijuana and underage drinking and talk to your teen about the harmful effects on young people. Get to know your child’s friends and parents. Make sure you know their rules and standards.

Knowing the Signs of Drug Abuse

It can be difficult to detect the signs of drug abuse because changes in mood, attitudes, unusual temper outbursts, and changes in hobbies or other interests are common in teens. Recognizing a possible drug-related behavioral issue early may, however, lead to early prevention before long-term health and behavioral problems occur.

As a parent, you should look for signs of depression, withdrawal and hostility:

  • Changes in friends and people they choose to “hang out” with.
  • Negative changes in schoolwork, missing school, discipline problems, activity changes.
  • Increased secrecy about possessions or personal activities; locking bedroom door.
  • Use of incense, room deodorant, or perfume to hide smoke or chemical odors.
  • Subtle changes in conversations with friends, more secretive; using coded language.
  • Change in clothing choices: new fascination with clothes that highlight drug use.
  • Evidence of drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers.
  • Bottles of eye drops, used to mask blood-shot eyes, or dilated pupils.
  • Missing prescription drugs -- especially narcotics and stabilizers.

Accept the role of a parent as your major responsibility. Children do not need you to be their friend, let others be their friend. You be the parent!

For Younger Children

Children can learn about drugs and other dangerous things like guns, from their peers, older children, television, or other means. But the most important place they can learn is from you, the parent. Keep your children informed about the importance of avoiding drugs and other harmful items like guns, strangers, and predators.

The Narcotics and Special Investigations Division has put together a simple coloring book with lots of important lessons for young children about police, drug and gun safety, and more. You can download a copy of the coloring book [PDF].

Additional Resources for Parents