DOPE: Finding A New Thrill On Pill Hill

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deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY FOR THE DAILY BEAST If you want to know which prescription drugs are trading on the black market, take a ride up to 17th and Jefferson in North Philadelphia, aka “Pill Hill,” a corner dedicated to the sale of diverted pharmaceuticals. These days on Pill Hill, there’s a good chance you’ll get sold some Seroquels, also known on the street as ’Quells or Suzie-Qs. A powerful antipsychotic intended to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Seroquel can have serious side effects including diabetes, a permanent Parkinson’s-like palsy called tardive dyskinesia, and sudden cardiac death. Despite this, it’s increasingly prescribed off-label to substance abusers like Hector for less-serious illnesses, like insomnia and anxiety. And Hector, like many of these Seroquel users, has prior arrests for drug dealing (in his case, crack cocaine). Which provides Seroquel the perfect middleman to usher it into the illicit drug trade. Drug dealers, mandated to treatment as a condition of their probation or parole, are given off-label prescriptions for Seroquel, then sent right back to the street, where the pills can be sold for cash to users and other dealers. MORE

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deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY FOR PHAWKER Pill Hill ain’t what it used to be.  Over the past 5 years the neighborhood surrounding 17th and Jefferson Street has undergone a transformation from a prescription drug addict’s Mecca of around-the-clock pill and syrup sales to an increasingly gentrified landing pad for Temple undergrads fresh from the ‘burbs. Back in 2003 when I used to cop OxyContin at 17 th and Jefferson — a risky last resort only undertaken when other connections couldn’t produce the amount of pills necessary to get through the day — Pill Hill was a thriving open air drug market.  All you had to do was pull up and the hustlers who waited on the stoops of nearby brownstones would serve you whatever pills you needed, day or night.  I went to Pill Hill on early weekend mornings and I went there at 2am on Tuesday nights.  There really wasn’t a time of day or the week when it wasn’t going on.

 

Things have changed since then.  Over the past five years the Philly PD cracked down on drug sales on Pill Hill; undercover officers with the narcotics unit started using confidential informants — addicts willing to trade information for a couple bucks to support their Oxy habits — to build cases against dealers there, and conducted raids to start taking diverted black market prescription drugs off the streets. As a result, copping pills on Pill Hill is a lot harder than it used to be.  The bulk of the street level hand-to-hand dealing is gone. “Now you have to know somebody out here to get anything,” says one former pill and syrup hustler who quit the business long ago but still knows the neighborhood. He mentions another force other than law enforcement efforts that has changed the neighborhood: gentrification. “Temple’s buying up everything around here,” he says, pointing to the former pain clinic on Master Street that he says used to supply much of the narcotics going around on Pill Hill.  The clinic is now shuttered and being renovated by developers, as are many of the abandoned houses in the neighborhood.

 

On a late summer Saturday night, prime pill copping time for the out-of-towners and casual users who fuel the drive-by drug trade, Pill Hill was a gentrification2_1.jpgpale shadow of its former self.  There were only two straggling hustlers posted up on the corner of 17th and Jefferson keeping an eye on passing traffic for possible customers.  A half block up from them a fresh faced white girl in flip flops, short-shorts and a Temple sweatshirt sat on her brownstone stoops chatting loudly with a friend on her cellphone.

 

There is the sense among neighbors that recent law enforcement efforts on Pill Hill were intended to clear a path for college kids to follow across Broad Street in search of cheap housing.  Temple’s plan to change its reputation from a commuter school embedded in an urban warzone into a thriving residential college campus has required the school to deepen its reach into surrounding North Philly neighborhoods.  The reception of Temple students in these communities is sometimes mixed, as was the case in Yorktown to the University’s south, a quiet, prosperous neighborhood of working class oldheads who complained about noise pollution and other assorted bad behavior on the part of encroaching undergrads.

 

The more likely reason law enforcement targeted Pill Hill after it quietly existed as the place for corner coke hustlers to cop their “water,” or codeine cough syrup, for twenty or so years was the arrival of OxyContin.  In 2001 Philly was up to its eyeballs in Oxys, and white kids in Fishtown were dropping like flies from overdoses.  The media was pushing the wildfire spread of OxyContin across Appalachia as an epidemic.  Pill Hill became known as the Oxy spot among the mostly young, white users of the drug — users like me at the time – who were now coming to the neighborhood looking to cop.  All that media hype and the flood of new traffic to the area caught the attention of the narcotics division.

 

So now Seroquel has hit the streets, though in what appears to be the twilight of the legendary Pill Hill drug scene.  Seroquel isn’t the new OxyContin; as stated in the Daily Beast article its appeal is limited and a lot of users actually dislike it quite a bit.  Regardless, it’s not often that urban observers like me get the opportunity to watch a new drug hits the streets, and following Seroquel’s bleed from the community substance abuse and mental health treatment system into the black market in real time has been fascinating, though also troubling as users encountering the drug on the street aren’t educated to its array of extremely serious potential side effects.

 

The demand nationally and in Philly for black market pharmaceutical drugs doesn’t seem to be abating, so even if Pill Hill remains the target of intensive law enforcement efforts, and continues its ascent as the new destination neighborhood for Temple undergrads looking for off-campus housing, the likelihood is that dealers will eventually set up shop somewhere else.  The legacy of Pill Hill will live on with another street corner being immortalized in Philly-lore as the new pancakes and syrup hot spot.

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