Local drug dealers experience a flash of ingenuity.
On a Friday night in August, on the 4500 block of Quarles Street NE, a young man with a long scar on his face stands in the dim space between two streetlights, one sneaker on the curb and another in the street. He cranes his neck, watching the southbound traffic on Kenilworth Avenue as it passes Quarles, heading for the I-295 on-ramp.
Every few minutes, a car makes the right turn onto Quarles, heading his way. Each time, the young man steps off the curb and raises his arm. A bright blue light shines from his hand. Up and down the block, other blue lights flick on, too. Some drivers keep on going; some pull over, toward the glow.
The lights are part of an elaborate communication system used by drug dealers on this strip to signal that they're holding product and to distinguish themselves from the regular neighborhood residents hanging out on Quarles. They tell potential buyers which drugs are available and warn dealers if police are in the vicinity.
Typically, the lights come from small pocket flashlights and penlights with tinted lenses. Different variants can be purchased at most camping-supply stores. At REI in Baileys Crossroads, Va., blue key-chain lights start at $7.95. At Eastern Mountain Sports in Arlington, lights are $18 and come in green, white, and blue.
The flashing lights give the weary, run-down strip a game-show-like quality: The dealer who presses the button first and is able to get the driver's attention fastest gets the sale. The young guy with the scar is particularly quick on the draw. Over and over again, he flashes down cars, instructs the drivers to get out so they can't drive off without paying, hands out his small packages, and then watches the taillights as the cars speed off toward the highway.
Dealers on this strip have been using the lights for nearly a year--effectively taking the guesswork out of buying and selling drugs.
"It fucked me up the first time I turned down that street and saw all of those motherfucking lights flashing," says one Virginia woman who frequently buys marijuana from Quarles Street, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They look like circus lights, like those little lights that you buy at a carnival or something."
While big-time drug dealers have benefited from technological advances such as two-way pagers and cell phones, those who depend on foot and car traffic to earn a living usually aren't able to employ such hi-tech aids; they are too conspicuous for someone standing out in the open. So street dealers, those most vulnerable to robberies and police busts, devise other means of communication.
"It's a progression of the signals," says Inspector Hilton Burton, commander of the D.C. police's Major Narcotics Branch. "It's gone from catcalls to soliciting people in traffic to hand signals. With street-level sales, there is always something new. They try different things, and as soon as officers catch on, they move to something else."
Burton says that he and his detectives haven't noticed the blue-light system around the city, but they recognize its appeal. "I can see it being useful," he says. "For [dealers], it's all a matter of attracting customers without doing it overtly, since there are patrol cars going back and forth."
Woodbridge, Va., resident Kenya Boyd, 27, says she's noticed the lights when she drives down Quarles Street. "I know that they use the lights for drugs, but I don't know the system and what the different lights stand for," says Boyd, who doesn't partake in the trade. "I don't see how it works unless everyone knows what the lights mean, but I think that it's a bad thing, anyway. They shouldn't be out there selling drugs."
The system is a combination of different colored lights and Morse-code-like flashes. "Red means the police are coming, blue is for cocaine, and green is for weed," says one Virginia man, a former drug dealer who now buys drugs there. "They've done everything on that block from having a dress code, so you know who has what, to throwing up signs....Now they're doing this."
Hand signals can be misinterpreted from a distance, and yelling back and forth can draw unwanted attention. By comparison, the light system is low-key and nearly foolproof.
"Last summer I went down there, and I noticed that when you first turn there is someone standing on the corner--I guess he's the spotter. He flashed a light a few times like a code--some type of Morse code or something--and everything just shut down," says the marijuana-buying Virginia woman. "Another time we parked, but before we could get out of the car, we saw a light flash three times--blink, blink, blink--and then everybody stopped what they were doing and just stood around in a group talking. Then we saw a police car come down the street."
The success of the lights on Quarles Street has led street dealers elsewhere in the city to start employing the system.
"Kenilworth and Quarles Street--they started it," says one Maryland dealer who now uses the blue-light system to sell marijuana in both his home state and the District. "I saw someone using one over in Valley Green one time."
"The reason I bought it had nothing to do with [drugs]," the Marylander continues. "I just thought it was a little convenience light that I could use to see at nighttime. But after I bought it, I saw that it was becoming a fad in D.C. All the people where I buy smoke were using it--flashing it at people. That's how I found out it was connected with weed. I flash people down with it, sometimes just to get their attention or whatever, but also to let them know that I've got that."
Burton says that when such trends emerge, the police department puts out bulletins to patrol officers to alert them to their meaning. But simply knowing about the various methods used to distribute drugs doesn't necessarily make arresting buyers and sellers any easier.
"If we see a trend or a pattern in an area that is deemed a high-drug area, it gives us cause to at least stop someone and inquire, but we can't search anyone unless we actually see them selling drugs," Burton says. "We can ask them what the purpose of it is, and if they want to give us information, they will."
Now that word about the light system is spreading, it is being used not just by those dealing drugs, but by those purchasing them. The Maryland dealer says that the light cuts down on confusion not only when he is selling marijuana, but when he goes to Quarles to buy it: "When I go over there, I'll see their light, then I'll hit them with my light, and they'll immediately come over to the car," he says. "I don't even have to roll down my window anymore." CP