After the Drug Days: One Ex-Dealer’s Story

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Where did the people who sold narcotics in Crown Heights go, once the business declined? One of them turned to music

The NYPD crime database shows that high-level drug offenses in Crown Heights have greatly declined since their peak in 2010. Drug crimes long ago lost their place at the top of the neighborhood’s Compstat crime chart, shoved out by such offenses as robbery, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. Those crimes too, have decreased. Robbery is down 50% since 2016; grand larceny, down 25%; and grand larceny auto, has declined 50%.

The drug numbers give rise to a question: If fewer drugs are being sold, fewer people must be selling them. Where did those people go? What are they doing now?

Well, at least one of them went into the music business. Meet Chaz H. Cleveland.

On a chilly autumn morning, with the scents of coffee beans and black-coconut incense decorating the air, Cleveland exits his Crown Gardens apartment complex. He has a slim build swallowed by a dark blue windbreaker, and he rubs his hands together and adjusts his clothing before setting off. He is of average height, with almond shaped eyes, chestnut brown skin and a baseball cap that hides his short black hair. Cleveland is on his way to a production gig with a 10 a.m. call time. He smirks as he explains how jampacked his schedule is for the next 24 hours.

Cleveland was a resident of Crown Heights for nearly his entire life. He appears to be in his mid to late twenties, but won’t confirm his age.  “Age is the only thing off the record,” he says. “I don’t believe in it.” Cleveland, a former drug dealer, is channeling his energy into his creative love: music.

But let us start near the beginning. Cleveland recalls that in kindergarten, he wanted to be Superman. He  proudly told this to his classmates, he says, during their sharing time. “Everybody in my kindergarten class laughed,” he said. “Including the teacher!”

He did not become Superman, but as Cleveland grew up, he says he realized that he had a talent for telling stories and illustrating them. “I would win contests and awards for my art,” said Cleveland. He became discouraged from pursuing that artistic love, however. The death of his maternal grandmother and the realization that his father had a dangerous relationship with alcohol, he said, sparked what he has grown to understand was the early stages of depression.

In that frame of mind, Cleveland says he made the decision not to finish high school. His reasons? An unresolved anger, combined with a lack of respect for the public school system. “I was also having problems because I wasn’t fly,” he said.  “My mom was still buying me Payless sneakers.” He grows somber as he reflects on his years in junior high school and high school. “It was the first time I got shot at,” said Cleveland. “Gangs just started taking over.”

Nonetheless, a few short years later, he began to sell drugs. “The first time I sold weed I made like $50 in like seven minutes,” Cleveland said.  “I knew it would add up to more than what a nine to five could ever pay me.”  He wanted the money to purchase trendy clothing and accessories for himself. And as his parents’ youngest child, he didn’t want to burden them.

His experience echoes that of others. Gino Cierchia, ceo/founder of the HARP Treatment Center, a substance abuse and mental health rehab facility in Palm Beach, Florida, believes that “people often become drug dealers because they see it as a way to make money to provide for their families. Many drug dealers have prior felony convictions and find it hard to obtain employment,” he said. “Other drug dealers have gotten used to making lots of money through drug dealing. It is hard to work a job that pays you $18 an hour when some drug dealers earn $300 or more dollars per day selling drugs.”

But it’s not an easy life, Cierchia added. “Selling drugs is not as easy a business as most people think. The governments of the world are cracking down on drug dealers.” said Cierchia “Most governments give drug dealers and smugglers hefty prison sentences and felony records if caught.”

At 18, Cleveland says, he received his first ounce of marijuana to sell. “I was broke and at the time I had bad experiences in the workforce. My first job was at Wendy’s, and on the day of orientation I saw a big-ass rat run past behind the bread,” said Cleveland. ” I came to the front of the store to tell the manager and he got mad at me for saying it so loud. From that day, he and I never got along”.

After the incident at the fast-food restaurant, Cleveland explains that he knew he never wanted to work for other people. “I was also influenced by my environment. I seen older dudes with the money and women, I seen high-end cars, seen it on TV, in the music, everything!”

And the money was good. “The most I made in one night was like $2,000 to $3,000 from selling pills, coke, and weed,” he said. Still, Cleveland’s expression became stern as he described those days. “These stories just brought me back to a weird dark place in my life” he said.

Several factors that contributed to Cleveland’s decision to leave the drug game, he says. For one, he was in a relationship with a woman who didn’t agree with the life that he was living. She told him
it was dangerous and would be short-lived. Then, after accidentally selling a pill to a friend that was laced with meth, Cleveland says that he began to feel strongly that what he was doing to his community was wrong. As he tells it, “I had a very spiritual experience, which told me I wasn’t following my purpose.”

As he left the drug trade, Cleveland, reignited his love affair with storytelling through his music. Cleveland is an independent recording artist and producer these days, and is working on building a musical empire. When asked if he has any regrets, he admits that he does. “I felt morally wrong selling crack, definitely,” he said.

And with that, Cleveland swipes his metro card and hustles downstairs to catch the express 4 train, uptown, toward a different life.

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