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This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center 
Massachusetts Drug Threat Assessment
April 2001 


Cocaine, both powdered and crack, was Massachusetts' chief drug threat throughout much of the 1990s, and it still predominates in the less populous regions of the state. Law enforcement authorities in counties with fewer than 500,000 people (Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket) identify cocaine, particularly crack cocaine, as their greatest drug threat; heroin-marijuana or marijuana-heroin are second and third, respectively. In the state's larger counties (Suffolk, Essex, Middlesex, Worcester, Norfolk, and Bristol), heroin has emerged as a threat greater than cocaine due in large part to its high purity and low price. In statewide substance abuse help-line calls in which drugs were specified, cocaine was mentioned in 17 percent of calls between May and September of 1999, compared to 23 percent for heroin.


Over the last 4 years, cocaine has dropped to second, ranking behind heroin as the drug of choice of those entering treatment in Massachusetts. Thirty-one percent of admissions to drug treatment centers in Boston in the first three quarters of FY1999 used powdered or crack cocaine in the month prior to admission. This figure is up from 29 percent in FY1998 but is still lower than any year in the period FY1994 to FY1997, when percentages ranged from 34 percent to 40 percent. Admissions for powdered and crack cocaine in the first three quarters of FY1999 were lower only than those for heroin and other opiates (34%) and alcohol (59%); they were significantly higher than those for marijuana (14%) and all other drugs combined (9%). The percentages were lower for the remainder of Massachusetts, but the patterns were similar: 22 percent reported using powdered or crack cocaine in the month prior to admission, up from 20 percent the year before, but equal to or lower than any other year during the period FY1994 to FY1997, when figures ranged between 22 percent and 25 percent. Admissions for cocaine were lower only than those for heroin and other opiates (31%) and alcohol (57%); they were higher than those for marijuana (18%) and all other drugs combined (10%).

According to DAWN data, ED cocaine mentions viewed as a percentage of total drug mentions were higher than every other drug type every year during the 1990s. During the period 1993 to 1998, cocaine mentions were relatively stable, accounting for between 15 and 18 percent of total drug mentions annually. Also according to DAWN data, the total number of ED cocaine mentions in Boston was up 35 percent in 1998 following a 2-year decline. There were more cocaine mentions in the 1990s than mentions of all other drug types combined.

Among admissions to state-funded substance abuse treatment centers in the first three quarters of FY1999 reporting powdered or crack cocaine as their primary drug, 68 percent reported using at least one other drug in the month prior to treatment. The most common secondary drug reported was alcohol, which drug users often take to moderate the effects of crack cocaine.

According to the Massachusetts DPH, substance abuse treatment centers in Boston in the first three quarters of FY1999 provided the following data for admissions reporting powdered or crack cocaine as their primary drug:

  • 60 percent were male, a percentage consistent with the previous 4 years.
  • 63 percent were African American and 22 percent were Caucasian, percentages consistent with the previous 2 years.
  • The percentage of admissions aged 19 to 29 dropped every year from 40 percent in FY1995 to 22 percent in the first three quarters of FY1999. Conversely, the percentage of admissions aged 30 to 49 climbed every year from 58 percent in FY1995 to 74 percent in the first three quarters of FY1999.
  • 85 percent earned less than $10,000 per year, a percentage consistent with the previous 2 years, and the percentage of admissions who were homeless dropped for the second straight year from 28 percent in FY1997 to 24 percent in the first three quarters of FY1999.
  • The percentage of admissions with some involvement with the criminal justice system stayed level or rose every year from 20 percent in FY1995 to 33 percent in the first three quarters of FY1999.
  • The percentage of admissions reporting a mental health problem rose every year save one from 21 percent in FY1995 to a high of 28 percent in the first three quarters of FY1999.
  • 76 percent of cocaine users preferred smoking as a method of administration; those preferring injection accounted for only 4 percent.23

Cocaine use remains relatively rare among school age adolescents, but inadvertent exposure via marijuana joints or "blunts" laced with crack cocaine occurs.24 Of Massachusetts high school students assessed by the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, 9.6 percent reported ever using cocaine, ranking the drug third behind marijuana (50.2%) and inhalants (14.4%) and ahead of methamphetamine, steroids, and heroin. Even fewer students, 4.3 percent, reported using cocaine during the 30 days preceding the survey, ranking the drug second behind only marijuana (30.6%). The patterns of use were similar in Boston, but the user percentages were lower: 3.8 percent reported ever using cocaine (ranking third behind marijuana and inhalants), and 2.1 percent reported using cocaine during the 30 days preceding the survey (ranking second behind marijuana).

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Cocaine is readily available throughout New England in ounce to kilogram quantities. Cocaine availability and prices across Massachusetts increased in 1999 through October.25 Powdered cocaine is the predominant form in suburbs and rural areas, but both powdered and crack cocaine are readily available in the inner city. Law enforcement in Boston comments that the availability of powdered cocaine seemed to increase in 1999. From 1997 through the first half of 1999, the total number of powdered and crack cocaine submissions to the Massachusetts DPH's Drug Analysis Laboratory was stable. However, within that time period, powdered cocaine submissions increased and crack cocaine submissions decreased.

Cocaine seizure data suggest a growing problem across the state except in Boston proper. According to FDSS drug seizure data, cocaine seizures in Massachusetts rose 137 percent in FY1999, after rising 22 percent the year before. These increases followed 2 straight years of decline from FY1995 to FY1997. Springfield law enforcement also reports cocaine distribution and cocaine seizures have risen. However, total drug arrests by officers of the Boston Police Department's Drug Control Division for "Class B"26 drug violations dropped 10.2 percent from 990 to 889 (874 for cocaine and 15 for methamphetamine). This drop marks the third straight year of decline for "Class B" arrests and follows declines of 7.6 percent from 1997 to 1998, and 15.3 percent from 1996 to 1997.

Cocaine prices and purity levels in Massachusetts for 1999 are listed in Table 1. The wholesale price of cocaine in Massachusetts occasionally increases $10,000 to $15,000 per kilogram. After about 6 or 8 weeks, the price returns to the original level. This price fluctuation has been occurring in Massachusetts for at least the past several years, and law enforcement authorities in New York City, Providence, Philadelphia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, report the pattern as well.

Table 1. Cocaine Price and Purity, Massachusetts

Type Amount Price Range Purity Range (percent)
Powdered Kilogram $19,000 - $30,000 90
1/8 Kilogram $3,000 - $4,500 80
Ounce (28.3 g) $500 - $1,500 80
1/2 Ounce (14.2 g) $180 - $600 N/A
1/8 Ounce (3.5 g) $75 - $275 N/A
Gram  $80 - $100 50
Bag $10 - $100  20 - 50
Crack Ounce (28.3 g) $700 - $1,500 80 - 90
Vial/rock $10 - $20 60 - 80

Source: Compiled from DEA, Massachusetts State Police, and Springfield and Lowell Police Department Sources, 1999.

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Cocaine trafficking, distribution, and use are strongly associated with violent crime in Massachusetts. Some cocaine traffickers and distributors commit violent acts while protecting or expanding their market area, others when stealing cocaine or protecting their cocaine from being stolen. Traffickers and distributors engage in "turf wars" and commit robberies because cocaine is an extremely valuable black-market commodity. Some cocaine abusers act violently when stealing money or property that they need to buy drugs for personal use. Cocaine use often causes physical or psychological dependence, and addicts without money often steal to support their drug habit. Law enforcement reports that much more violence is linked to the crack cocaine trade than to the powdered cocaine trade. Law enforcement in Boston targets crack cocaine traffickers because of the strong associations between the crack cocaine trade and violence, and the Springfield Police Department reports a link between crack cocaine trafficking and gang and ethnic violence over the control of market areas. Some violence in Massachusetts could also be the result of irrational acts committed by users under the influence of crack cocaine and its psychoactive effects, although there is no evidence to indicate that powdered cocaine use causes violent behavior.



There are no reports of coca cultivation or cocaine production in Massachusetts, although many lower-level retailers convert powdered cocaine into crack cocaine in the state.



The Greater Boston area--including the nearby cities of Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn--is Massachusetts' primary regional distribution center for cocaine transportation. Colombian and Dominican wholesalers arrange for the transportation of multiton amounts of cocaine into the metropolitan area and supply the cocaine markets in northeastern and southeastern Massachusetts.27 Colombian wholesalers operate at the highest levels of Greater Boston's cocaine trade, coordinating and controlling networks that bring in the greatest amounts of cocaine and limiting their exposure and risk by hiring Dominican, Hispanic, and other ethnic criminals to do the actual transportation for them. Many Dominican wholesalers operate independently of Colombian DTOs, transporting large, but probably lesser, quantities of cocaine into Greater Boston from their own sources outside the state. Most law enforcement investigations involve Dominican organizations, which law enforcement finds easier to penetrate than Colombian organizations. The U.S. Attorney's Office says its cocaine cases usually involve organizations, whereas its heroin cases usually involve individuals. The largest organizations transport more than 100 kilograms of cocaine, and sometimes as much several hundred kilograms, at a time into Greater Boston.

Worcester and Springfield are secondary regional distribution centers for cocaine transportation activity. Wholesalers arrange for the transportation of large quantities of cocaine into these cities from sources outside the state and supply the cocaine markets in central and western Massachusetts. Dominican wholesalers dominate transportation activity in Springfield and Worcester; Puerto Rican wholesalers are involved to a lesser degree. Lesser quantities of cocaine are transported into Worcester and Springfield than Greater Boston because the population and the drug markets in and near these cities are smaller. DEA reports that traffickers transport 1 to 5 kilograms of cocaine per trip into western and central Massachusetts. One kilogram per trip is the usual quantity transported into Springfield, and 3-4 kilograms per trip is the norm into Worcester.

The nearby cities of Providence and Hartford also serve as regional distribution centers outside the state for transporting cocaine to Massachusetts' markets.28 Organizations in New York City supply most of the cocaine in Massachusetts, and some cocaine is transported directly from New York City to local distributors and users in Massachusetts. However, most cocaine reaches those markets by way of intermediate wholesalers in Greater Boston (en route to northeastern and southeastern Massachusetts), Providence (to southeastern and central Massachusetts), Worcester (to central Massachusetts), Hartford (to central and western Massachusetts), or Springfield (to western Massachusetts). Proximity determines where local distributors and users go for supply.

The Colombian organizations obtain most of their cocaine from organizations in Jackson Heights, New York, a Colombian-dominated area of Queens, and the Dominican organizations obtain the bulk of their supply from organizations in Washington Heights, New York, a Dominican-dominated area of Manhattan. Some wholesalers in Greater Boston probably have direct supply routes from foreign locations in the Caribbean or South America by virtue of Boston's large port and international airport.29 Wholesalers in Springfield and Worcester do not appear to have direct supply routes from foreign locations in the Caribbean or South America, probably because there are no ports or international airports in or near these cities.30 Powdered cocaine reportedly has been transported to Massachusetts from Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, Puerto Rico, and the Southwest Border, and law enforcement occasionally has seized liquid cocaine in Boston arriving from Jamaica.31 Large shipments of cocaine reportedly were transported to Lawrence by trafficking organizations based in Atlanta, Houston, and Miami on a regular basis during the period January to June 1999.32

Most traffickers transport cocaine to Massachusetts along major highways in privately owned, borrowed, or leased vehicles and livery vans--which often are outfitted with hidden hydraulic compartments--and via public transportation (buses, trains, commercial air carriers) and express delivery services. Buses run every hour or two between Springfield and New York City, and a livery service runs between the cities about once an hour. Interstate highways connect Massachusetts with five bordering states: New Hampshire (I-95 and I-93), Vermont (I-91), New York (I-90), Connecticut (I-91, I-84, and I-395), and Rhode Island (I-95, I-295, and I-195). Interstate 95 also provides a direct connection to all major cities on the East Coast--most importantly New York City--and the Canadian border. Massachusetts has an extensive system of state highways that connect urban and rural areas, and a well-developed public transportation system in Boston provides easy access to communities in the eastern part of the state.

As outlined in the Overview section, drugs potentially are transported to Massachusetts by both air and maritime means. Some cocaine is brought to Massachusetts by couriers traveling on commercial air flights into Logan International Airport in Boston and Bradley International Airport near Springfield. Bradley International reportedly is being used to smuggle cocaine from Puerto Rico directly to Springfield and Hartford (the airport is located between the two cities). Cocaine might be shipped into smaller airports in Worcester and New Bedford, although law enforcement does not report any activity or seizures. Law enforcement task forces regularly monitor Logan and Bradley International Airports, but interdiction efforts at Worcester Municipal Airport and New Bedford Regional Airport are minimal. Cocaine is probably transported to the state by maritime means in commercial cargo as well. USCS documents only one very small cocaine seizure at Massachusetts seaports from mid-1995 through April 200033 and estimates there were only one or two significant interdictions since the early 1980s, but interdiction efforts at those ports are minimal. The maritime threat is greater than the air threat for cocaine because the large quantities of cocaine needed to supply the Massachusetts market are more easily transported by ship than by air couriers. The Port of Boston is the largest handler of container cargo in New England, and international drug organizations are known to transport multiton shipments of cocaine to the U.S. mainland on containerized cargo ships, a method of transportation that is very difficult for law enforcement to interdict.

Massachusetts also serves as a staging area or interim transportation point for cocaine transported north. Lawrence and Lowell, north of Boston, are distribution centers for northern New England and Canada. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are supplied with cocaine chiefly by drug groups in northeastern Massachusetts, particularly in Lawrence and Lowell. Law enforcement has documented cocaine shipments from central Massachusetts to Maine and New Hampshire. USCS intelligence also suggests that drugs are transported from New York City through New England to Canada. Because drug penalties in northern New England are stricter than in Massachusetts and because U.S. Attorneys there are more likely to prosecute in investigations involving smaller amounts of drugs, Massachusetts-based distributors generally do not travel to northern New England with drugs. Low-level retailers and users in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont usually come to Massachusetts to obtain their supply. Reportedly, most of these people are lower-income Caucasians.

Many authorities conclude that cocaine operations, as well as heroin operations, in Massachusetts can best be disrupted or dismantled by targeting Colombian wholesalers in New York City and, to a lesser extent, Colombian wholesalers in Boston. They also believe that cocaine and heroin operations in Massachusetts can be substantially disrupted by targeting Dominican wholesalers in New York City and, to a lesser extent, Dominican wholesalers in Greater Boston (including Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn), Worcester, and Springfield/Holyoke. Wholesalers represent a key vulnerability in the infrastructure of drug distribution networks because their central position in the flow of drugs and drug money throughout the U.S. Northeast gives them control and knowledge of operations and access to producers, transporters, distributors, and financiers.34 Wholesalers in Massachusetts are significant but not as important as the New York City-based wholesalers from whom they receive most of their drug supply. Dominican wholesalers are not as significant as Colombian organizations, which the Dominican organizations rely on for drug supply.35

To better address the drug situation in Massachusetts, a comprehensive assessment of each of the ethnic criminal drug threats that are present and significant in the state is needed, with attention given to the command-and-control relationships that exist among various drug trafficking contingents. Analysis should concentrate on strategic vulnerabilities that policymakers and operators can attack to disrupt or dismantle those threats. Authorities in Massachusetts have identified this issue as an intelligence gap.

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In Greater Boston, the state's primary regional distribution center, Colombian DTOs operate at the highest levels of the cocaine trade and Dominican trafficking organizations and distribution groups are believed to constitute 80 to 90 percent of the middle and lower levels. Dominican distribution groups are active down to the street level in Lawrence and Lynn. Some Puerto Rican groups distribute drugs at the street level in these two cities, and Caucasian distributors are involved in Lynn. In East Boston, many ethnic criminal groups distribute drugs at the street level. Hispanic criminal groups dominate retail sales in South Boston and northern Dorchester, and African American and Hispanic criminal groups are the most active in Roxbury. In southern Dorchester and Hyde Park, Caucasian retailers predominate.

In Springfield and Worcester, the state's secondary regional distribution centers, Dominican organizations control the wholesale market, and other groups that they supply dominate the street level including Puerto Rican, Jamaican, African American, and Mexican criminal groups and street gangs, and perhaps Vietnamese or other ethnic criminal groups. Dominican criminal groups are involved in retail distribution in these secondary regional distribution centers as well. Colombian organizations are rarely involved in these cities.

Command and control exists within wholesale organizations and retail groups, but not between or among them; those associations are exclusively buyer-seller business relationships. Law enforcement often refers to Dominican organizations in particular as "loosely knit," meaning that organizational roles are not rigidly defined, as in some DTOs and distribution groups, and the people who perform certain functions may vary significantly from one operation to the next. This method of organization creates difficulties for law enforcement, which must identify and target members of an organization that has an ever-changing look.

Some wholesalers and retailers sell only cocaine, but many others sell both cocaine and heroin. Cocaine wholesalers usually sell only powder. Many retailers sell the powder to users, others (particularly those in urban areas) convert the powder to crack cocaine before selling it at the street level. Open-air markets for these drugs exist, but only small amounts of drugs and money change hands there. Most drug sales are consummated off the street in stores, malls, or supermarkets, or in cars or private residences. Distributors often live in one residence, store drugs in a second, and distribute drugs out of a third.

Traffickers often use tight security measures to thwart law enforcement efforts. Dominican criminals, in particular, are extremely adept at operational security and countersurveillance. Their use of radio transceivers, alarm systems, police scanners, miniature video cameras, and other high-tech equipment to detect and monitor the activities of law enforcement is common. Dominican criminals are ingenious at constructing false compartments in buildings and vehicles to hide drugs, money, and firearms, and at installing intricate electronic and manual traps to protect their property and goods. Vehicle traps often contain sizable quantities of drugs.

According to an NDIC report, Dominican drug organizations are difficult for law enforcement to penetrate and dismantle for several other reasons. First, group members do their best to keep business within the family as much as possible. They are extremely insular and wary of outsiders. Second, they routinely disguise their identities by obtaining false identification papers from sources in the United States or the Caribbean. Law enforcement authorities can only positively identify such individuals through fingerprinting. Third, most Dominican criminals avoid lavish lifestyles that would attract attention. Adopting a low-profile existence allows them to blend easily into the metropolitan scene. Fourth, Dominican distributors usually reside in the United States for only 2 or 3 years, after which they return to the Dominican Republic to live in luxury. They are apt to flee back to the Dominican Republic immediately if they think law enforcement is targeting them.

Massachusetts' drug distributors use cell phones, pagers, and pay phones (dialing with phone cards) to communicate with fellow distributors, arrange shipments, and meet with buyers. More and more, traffickers are also communicating with one another over the Internet, which is too expansive for law enforcement to monitor easily.

Drug distributors almost invariably pay for drugs with cash, often receiving them on full or partial consignment and repaying their suppliers after the drugs are sold. They launder profits by reinvesting proceeds in their organizational infrastructure or by sending money out of the state or country via bulk cash shipments or electronic wires. Dominican organizations are known to wire vast amounts of illegal drug profits from Massachusetts to the Dominican Republic, amounting to at least millions of U.S. dollars annually. Law enforcement has difficulty targeting these money transactions.

Drug trafficking in other Massachusetts cities, towns, and rural areas is less sophisticated, and markets are open to independent entrepreneurs and gangs. According to responses to a 2000 NDIC survey, gangs that law enforcement identifies as the most significant in their area are involved in drug trafficking in northeastern (Suffolk, Middlesex, and Essex counties), central (Worcester County), and southeastern (Bristol County) Massachusetts. Of the survey respondents that listed specific drug types, all indicated one or more of the most significant gangs in their area distribute cocaine. Law enforcement reports that the Latin Kings and Vice Lords gangs distribute crack cocaine in Leominster and Fitchburg, two cities near Worcester in central Massachusetts.

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End Notes

23. This statement suggests that most admissions to treatment centers for cocaine are crack users, because powdered cocaine is not smoked.
24. A "blunt" is a hollowed out cigar filled with marijuana.
25There are two different explanations why availability and prices would both rise: (1) one or more economic factors affecting the distribution market have changed to force prices up, and at the same time transportation through the state to other distribution markets has risen to account for an increase in availability; (2) availability is unable to keep pace with demand in the local distribution market. There is no evidence of a rising demand for cocaine in Massachusetts--if anything, demand might be slightly down--so the first explanation seems more probable.
26. "Class B" corresponds to Schedule II of the federal Controlled Substances Act (Title 21, Section 812 of the U.S. Code of Law).
27. Some law enforcement authorities believe there are more drugs in Lawrence and Lowell than in Boston. These cities are said to have a larger Dominican population, and they occasionally serve as supply cities for the drug markets in Boston, Bedford, and other eastern Massachusetts cities.
28. Woonsocket, a city near Providence, sometimes serves as a supply area for cocaine.
29. Colombian organizations are more likely to have these international supply connections than Dominican organizations. If these connections do exist, Boston deserves designation as a national hub, not merely a regional distribution center, but that link requires more research to substantiate.
30. As previously mentioned, international flights out of Bradley International Airport near Springfield connect to foreign destinations through other U.S. cities.
31. Liquid cocaine often is smuggled out of Jamaica to the United States dissolved in bottles of rum. Jamaica exports a significant amount of rum, and liquid cocaine dissolves well in an alcoholic solution.
32. Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta is the busiest airport in the world as measured by the average number of daily flight arrivals and departures.
33. The documented seizure was 1 gram of cocaine, which was seized along with 1 gram of marijuana off a fishing boat in Boston.
34. These conclusions rely on at least three assumptions: (1) The number of Colombian and Dominican wholesalers in the various locations discussed above is not so many that law enforcement could not effectively target them. (2) Other drug wholesalers (Colombian, Dominican, or other) would not be able to quickly take the place of eliminated wholesalers, because the positions are difficult to fill, requiring interorganizational contacts, leadership and management skills, and other personal qualities, or because of other reasons. (3) Many retailers that depend on particular wholesalers for supply would not be able to quickly obtain a steady supply of cocaine and heroin from new wholesalers if their former suppliers disappeared, because identifying new sources and establishing consistent and reliable business relationships takes time.
35. If Colombian or Dominican wholesalers in Boston have direct supply connections to the Caribbean and/or South America, their importance to drug markets in Massachusetts is greater but still does not equal that of wholesalers in New York City, the most significant cocaine and heroin distribution center in the U.S. Northeast.


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