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New Target in War Against Crack: Mini-Bottles of Grain Alcohol

August 4, 1995

CHICAGO (AP) _ For many crack users, an airline-size bottle of grain alcohol is just the thing for a single hit.

The alcohol is used to cook the cocaine so that users can inhale the fumes. And the bottle can be converted into a pipe for smoking the drug.

``Selling grain alcohol in bottles that size ... is really outrageous,″ said Eugene Schulter, a city alderman who has twice succeeded in passing bills banning the product. ``How any legitimate business can help them (drug users) is beyond me.″

Distillers and distributors outflanked Schulter last year when the City Council banned the sale of alcohol exceeding 152 proof. They came out with mini-bottles of 151-proof grain alcohol.

On Wednesday, the City Council tried again, this time banning grain alcohol of any proof in bottles of less than 8 ounces.

``We haven’t heard of this cropping up anyplace else,″ said Susan Ironfield, spokeswoman for Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Grain alcohol is used to make a hot flame that vaporizes the crack, producing fumes. Any kind of alcohol can be used, or even a large cigarette lighter. But the City Council went after the mini-bottles of grain alcohol because they’re cheap, readily available at inner-city liquor stores, easy to carry in a pocket and used by many addicts in Chicago.

Some experts say that since there are many ways to smoke crack, they doubt that using glass bottles is widespread.

And no one, not even the main promoters of the ban, sees taking action against the mini-bottles of alcohol as anything more than a peripheral battle in the war on drugs.

``This is not going to end drug abuse,″ said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest who first raised the issue and for years has fought drugs and alcohol in black neighborhoods. ``But anything we can do to eat away at the problem is important.″

Wayne Wiebel, a University of Illinois epidemiology professor who works with drug addicts, said although the ban won’t make a dent in the drug trade, ``these kinds of measures are more important as gestures.″

``It has the impact of maintaining the attention of the public on the problem,″ he said.

Others say there are better ways to get at the problem.

``I don’t get it,″ said Dan Bigg, director of harm reduction at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which works with drug users and AIDS victims. ``If this is a gesture born of frustration, I can understand it. But why not put what energy you’re using into advocacy for additional treatment spots?

``The bottom line is that none of that will stop crack cocaine.″

Liquor distributors dismissed the issue as trivial.

``Look, it’s a legal size in this country and we make all sizes and we get demand for the miniatures,″ said Robert Pressman, general counsel for the Illinois Wholesale Liquor Dealers Association. He added, however, that the product is easy to drop in Chicago because it is such a tiny part of the liquor business.

He said he has no clear idea who would want grain alcohol in tiny bottles.

``Maybe somebody likes it in the home. Maybe they want to make a little peach flambeau. I don’t know,″ he said.

Liquor distributor Michael Romano stopped selling the tiny bottles a year or so ago rather than fight City Hall.

``I think the cause is good but the precedent is bad,″ Romano said. ``It’s the start of Prohibition.″

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