Drug dealers pushing 'brand loyalty'

Deadly marketing thrives on streets

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In the illegal drug trade, as in many enterprises, marketing is key.

The words and images stamped on packets of heroin -- from the phrase "Get High or Die Trying" to pictures of cartoon character Scooby-Doo or the Playboy bunny -- serve the same purpose as a corporate logo or a familiar jingle in a TV commercial.

"It's a marketing ploy," said Capt. David Young, director of the state police Drug Law Enforcement Division. "It identifies the product and establishes product loyalty."

Stamp bags are the most common form of packaging used for individual doses of heroin. New users can get a high from one bag, but experienced users often need multiple bags to get their fix.

The glassine bags derive their name not only from the images and words stamped on them, but from their intended purpose: protecting postage stamps gathered by collectors.

The bags can be bought in any hobby store, and dealers can either purchase the rubber stamps or make them themselves, said Pittsburgh police narcotics Cmdr. Maurita Bryant.

When an image or phrase is used to brand a particular set of stamp bags, that batch of heroin is known on the streets by its stamp.

"The heroin trade goes by word of mouth," Cmdr. Bryant said. "Say there's a user who has a stamp bag with a smiley face on it. The user will start talking about how good the stuff was, and it's almost like free advertising."

When a new batch of especially potent heroin appears on the street -- such as the fentanyl-laced heroin in bags labeled "Get High or Die Trying" that has caused a spate of overdoses and at least six deaths locally -- it's not long before demand skyrockets.

Dealers are "competing for the best product," said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center. "The word on the street is that this is the strongest stuff, so demand is high. I think the dealers, especially the high-level ones, know exactly what they're doing."

The forces of the drug market are even felt inside Gateway, where Dr. Capretto had to persuade a recovering addict to stay at the center after the man received a call from a friend informing him that their dealer was selling the bags stamped "Get High or Die Trying."

"He wanted to leave. We actually had to talk him into staying," Dr. Capretto said. "His first reaction was, 'I want that. I want to try the new stuff.' Fortunately, he was here, but if he was out on the streets, he would have been drawn to it."

Dealers selling a popular brand of stamp bags have to stay a step ahead of copycats, Capt. Young said.

"The problem is there's no copyright laws, so as soon as you put a good product on the street, people will copy your stamp," he said. "A good dealer will let his customers know and say, 'Hey, next week we're coming out with a different stamp on our bag. We only sell from this corner or this house, so only buy from me.' "

Because stamps are often copied and are modified from city to city, it's practically impossible to trace a drug's supply line from the stamps on its bags, Capt. Young said.

For instance, similar fentanyl-laced heroin causing overdoses in Philadelphia was stamped as "fefe," "flatline" and "exorcist," among other brand names.

Making it even harder to track the path of drugs like Pittsburgh's tainted heroin is the well-hidden route such drugs typically take from supplier to dealer to user, Cmdr. Bryant said.

A regional supplier will take a shipment of heroin from another city and pass it along to one or two trusted people, she said. Those people will each divide the supply among about 15 dealers, who then divide it even further and distribute it to drug runners who sell it on the streets.

The shipment is diluted along the way, increasing its yield but also leaving both dealers and users unsure of its potency, Cmdr. Bryant said.

"The big guy's never out there doing the hand-to-hand [distributing]," she said. "It's very difficult to get to the suppliers. They have people working for them, just like a business enterprise. It's difficult to get close to them unless you have inside information to know when a shipment is coming in or where an exchange is going to take place."

Stamp bags generally sell for about $10, although the price can fluctuate, Cmdr. Bryant said. Suburban dealers who buy a bundle of 10 stamp bags or a brick of 50 in the city turn a profit by selling bags for $12 each back in the suburbs, she said.

The relatively low price for a stamp bag and the use of cartoon characters and other familiar images on the bags can make heroin alluring to young people, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

This stamp bag of "Come Up" heroin was being sold on Pittsburgh's streets.
Click photo for larger image.
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Ryan Haggerty can be reached at rhaggerty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1563.


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