The Crack Epidemic

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Chapter 3
The Crack Epidemic

As extreme as some cocaine-induced behaviors can be, they are relatively mild when compared with the behavior induced by crack, a derivative of cocaine. In 1985, when the price of cocaine had soared to $150 a gram, plastic vials containing what looked like tiny soap chips began selling on the streets of low-income

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neighborhoods for $5 to $10 a "rock." Crack cocaine had arrived on America's streets and, unlike pricey cocaine, just about anyone who wanted crack could afford it.

The active ingredient of crack is cocaine. Working in illicit "kitchens," individuals manufacture crack by adding ammonia or sodium bicarbonate and water to pure cocaine, drying the mixture, and then crumbling the residue into small rocks. Adulterated this way, a gram of cocaine makes enough crack to satisfy many users.

Though it is made from a relatively small amount of powdered cocaine, crack is extremely potent. Because crack is smoked, the active chemicals reach the brain in seconds compared to the ten to fifteen minutes powdered cocaine requires. Crack's almost instantaneous delivery to the brain provides a more highly concentrated impact than does snorted cocaine, which loses potency as it travels through the bloodstream.

Suddenly, cocaine was no longer just for the well-to-do. Dealers sold crack in packets of two to five rocks, meaning that even someone earning the minimum wage could afford to get high.

The synthesizing of crack from cocaine boosted the sale of both forms of the drug and dramatically increased the number of users. Crack dealers quickly moved their operations into low-income neighborhoods. Just as cocaine had been labeled the drug of the wealthy, crack was labeled the drug of choice of the inner city or ghetto.

With the availability of this potent, inexpensive form of cocaine, millions of low-income workers and adolescents began trying the drug. What they quickly—and unexpectedly—learned was that the intensity of the crack rush brought with it greater risk of addiction than did cocaine. By the end of the 1980s, crack use and the problems it caused reached epidemic levels.

As the use of crack spread, epidemiologists recognized that crack was rapidly becoming a serious threat primarily to the poor who lacked the educational and financial resources to cope with the destructive effects of the drug. Not only were the nation's poor ill-equipped to deal with crack's effects, but the very attributes that made crack affordable to the poor guaranteed that it would exacerbate other problems that already made life in the nation's inner cities a daily struggle.

Cocaine Versus Crack

Although crack is derived from cocaine and is classified by federal and state law enforcement agencies as a form of cocaine, each form of the drug works differently in the body. Unlike cocaine, crack affects the user within seconds; similarly, its effects wear off more quickly, lasting only between five and ten minutes. Unfortunately for crack users, the intense rush is so pleasurable that users want more as soon as the effects wear off, and addiction is more likely. Moreover, since the euphoria wears off much faster than it does with cocaine, users must smoke many times a day to keep the inevitable depression at bay. Drug researcher Elisabeth Ryan describes the differences between inhaling powdered cocaine and smoking crack this way:

It may take several minutes to feel the effects of snorting coke, and the "high" lasts for about 20 minutes to a half hour. Crack, on the other hand, is felt within a few seconds, and the short but very intense high lasts only for five or ten minutes, followed by a very intense crash. Cocaine is psychologically and physically addictive to many people, but it usually takes from two to five years for the addiction to develop. Crack, because it operates so quickly, is also very quickly addictive. Almost without exception, users become addicted within the first few uses, sometimes from the very first use.15

The Inner-City Dilemma

The destructive potential of crack was soon apparent. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, hospital emergency rooms began reporting hundreds of crack-related deaths and secondary illness associated with crack addiction. Social services were swamped by children abandoned by their crack-addicted parents. Local police and federal drug enforcement officers packed local jails with inner-city crack users and dealers in an attempt to stem the spread of the drug and the crimes that went with it.

Most visible to Americans was televised coverage of the violence that accompanied the crack epidemic. Local street gangs recognized that they could make money by selling crack. To eliminate competition, gangs fought for control of crack trafficking and as a result neighborhoods began to resemble shooting ranges. Handguns became the standard weapons for enforcing control of trafficking in neighborhoods. High school and even junior high school students began dealing crack and carrying guns to school campuses. Gun battles among crack dealers, along with the frequent confrontations between the crack community and the police, created an unprecedented atmosphere of violence in many inner-city neighborhoods.

Crack houses soon appeared in East Coast slums as dealers and users found places to carry on their activities out of view of both the police and rival gangs. Although crack houses gave dealers and their customers the protection they sought, these structures contributed to an image of decay in America's inner cities. Often lacking running water, electricity, or trash collection, crack houses were breeding grounds for disease. An addict who overdosed there was unlikely to receive help because no one else was responsible enough to summon police or medics for assistance.

In an attempt to maintain order for the majority of lawful citizens in the inner cities, some police departments adopted the strategy of arresting as many crack users and dealers as possible. When police identified crack houses, they arrested anyone they found there. Gang members known to traffic in crack were rounded up in mass arrests.

Focusing enforcement on crack houses and their occupants succeeded in eliminating some crack houses, but what the nation began to see was jails filled with disproportionately large numbers of African American and Hispanic youths. To the complexities of the crack epidemic was added the perception that the war on crack was actually racially motivated. Minority leaders in many communities complained that the police were intentionally targeting the small-time minority users and dealers while turning a blind eye toward the big-time traffickers, who were often white. Some community leaders who raised allegations of racism demanded investigations into police policies.

Crack Houses

One widely known outgrowth of crack use is the so-called crack house, where crack addicts congregate to buy and smoke crack or inject cocaine. Mariella, a longtime cocaine addict, describes the scene inside a crack house she frequents to Eugene Richards in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue.

They [cocaine users] get sick in there if they live in there. You see them laying around. They need water to mix up the drugs, the dope or the coke, and the crack, so especially if they're homeless or hookers, they'll get water from anywhere.

Yeah, I think it's four bucks to shoot up. Other places are like a buck or two, just a dollar or two to get in, and you just gotta do your shit and get out. Yeah, it's usually an abandoned building, but they take their squatters' rights or whatever the hell you want to call it. You're taking a big chance going in there, because you get ripped off, you get mugged. You can die.

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Police departments accused of intentionally targeting minorities for arrest generally denied the charges. Law enforcement personnel argued that they were arresting more people of color for crack violations precisely because crack was more commonly used among minorities than among whites. To support this view, police cited studies such as the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), which found in 1997 that Hispanics were 30 percent more likely than whites to use crack and that blacks were 133 percent more likely than whites to use crack.

Statistics such as the NHSDA study did little to quell accusations of racism. Many leaders in the black community sought greater leniency on the part of the police toward minority users while suggesting that arresting the crack kingpins would be a more effective way of curtailing the crack epidemic. These leaders further suggested that money spent on arresting users could be better spent preventing the drugs from reaching minority communities in the first place.

Regardless of the politics of how police departments handled the crack epidemic, health professionals, public school administrators, and social service providers quickly recognized that a crack culture was evolving in America's inner cities, creating a complex web of interrelated crime and suffering.

Crack-Related Crime

As the use of crack spread, crime followed closely behind. According to statistics compiled by large metropolitan police departments, the sale and use of crack spawns far more crime than the sale and use of most other drugs. Statistics also indicate that crack is responsible for an increase in the violence of crimes committed. The U.S. Sentencing Commission held a hearing on cocaine and crack in which criminologist Dr. Steven Belenko addressed the commission as an expert witness. According to the commission's published report, "Dr. Steven Belenko stated that he had analyzed arrest data for crack cocaine sellers and determined that, relative to powder cocaine sellers, crack cocaine sellers had higher arrest rates for both nondrug and violent crimes."16

Crime associated with America's underground crack industry is a large, violent, and complex problem. In addition to possession and sale of crack, which are violations of the law, crack dealers and users perpetrate many other crimes as well. Not only do innocent people become victims, people within the crack culture are themselves victimized.

Because they need many doses of the drug to feed their habit, addicts can easily spend over $100 a day to satisfy their craving for crack. Handicapped by the effects of the drug, most addicts are incapable of maintaining full-time legitimate jobs to earn this much money, much less pay for their other daily needs. For many of these people, the only option is to turn to crime: selling crack themselves, armed robbery, mugging, shoplifting, auto theft, and prostitution. Ironically, although hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of goods are stolen each year to support crack habits, more often than not, dealers and users victimize each other.

Within the complex network of drug distribution, dealers and users commit many crimes against each other. Traffickers fight over control of sales in particular neighborhoods, dealers rob rival dealers of drugs and money, and dealers sell diluted crack to their customers. From time to time, gang members who have become police informants are exposed; they are often killed in retaliation. Hierarchies within drug gangs are established and maintained with force, and dozens of minor rules within the crack "community" are violently enforced. Controlling street dealers, for example, is generally done through physical threats. Belenko states that the need to maintain control over street dealers creates an atmosphere where everyone is likely to "use . . . violence to maintain discipline, resolve disputes, and enforce control."17 These types of crime are a part of the crack business and, because that business is illegal, most victims are unwilling to turn to the police and cannot ask courts to redress their grievances. As one expert notes, "In an underground economy, you can't sue. So you use violence to enforce your breaches of contract or perceived breaches of contract."18

Youth and the Web of Crime

Neighborhood youths are often more likely to be drawn into the web of crack-related crime than are older residents. Criminologists have found that those who control the crack trade intentionally recruit teenagers as young as thirteen who have criminal records to serve as street dealers because they tend to be easily intimidated and are often more willing to commit crimes than teens without criminal backgrounds.

The correlation between crack and crime against other members of society is well documented. Whenever police arrest people for serious crimes, suspects are tested for the presence of illegal drugs in their systems. In 1999, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) compiled statistics on the results of drug tests on men arrested in major cities. They found an alarmingly high proportion—39.9 percent of suspects—tested positive, suggesting that many crimes are committed in order to support drug habits.

The increased level of violence among criminals due to crack changed entire neighborhoods. As crack-related violence rose, law-abiding citizens, fearing for their lives, converted their homes and apartments into fortresses. They bolted steel bars over street-level windows and many bought handguns for self-protection. Even though most of these neighborhoods already had a history of crime, few had experienced such a high level of violent crime in the past.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Local police forces, realizing that they were losing the war on crack, turned to the federal government for help. In an attempt to help police regain control of inner-city streets and protect innocent citizens from the destructive tendencies of the crack culture, Congress passed new laws aimed at removing crack dealers from society.

In 1986 Congress established mandatory minimum sentences for convicted dealers, responding to public outcry that judges sentencing cocaine and crack offenders were too lenient. Lawmakers made a distinction between powdered cocaine and crack: The mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five hundred grams of powdered cocaine was five years in prison. The same sentence was mandated for possession of just five grams of crack.

Although the stated objective of these mandatory minimum sentences was to reduce the amount of cocaine and crack available on the street, the laws generated a great deal of controversy. First, many community leaders question whether harsher sentences for crack offenses have actually reduced the volume of crack. According to the NHSDA, there are about six hundred thousand regular crack users in the United States and this number has remained stable for the past ten years. Some believe that the stabilized rate is evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing has been successful. On the other hand, those who believe that the minimum standards have not been successful argue that the number of crack users should have dropped rather than remained stable.

Second, some charged racism was a factor in leveling harsher sentences on offenders locked up for crack possession, who were predominantly black or Hispanic, than on cocaine offenders, who were more often white. According to David T. Courtwright, professor of history and health sciences at the University of North Florida, "The result was that, by 1993, federal prison sentences for blacks averaged 41 percent longer than those of whites, with the crack/powder distinction being the major reason for the difference."19

Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences argue that the laws are racist because the fact that most crack dealers and users are minorities means that the harsher mandatory minimum sentences affect minorities disproportionately. Journalist Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine, summarized the sense of racism in the sentencing disparity in the following observation:

I certainly think they [the laws] should be reexamined—and the disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine. . . . The Republican Congress was willing to narrow, but not eliminate, them on the theory that people who use crack are more violent than people who use cocaine. Well, what they really meant was that people who use crack are more likely to be poor and, coincidentally, black or brown and, therefore, not have money. Whereas, people who use cocaine were more likely to be rich, pay for it, and therefore be peaceable.20

Supporters of minimum sentences counter the racism allegation by pointing out that crack is a factor in more violent crimes than cocaine is. Moreover, supporters contend, minority residents are often the ones who summon the police to make arrests and to close down crack houses.

Although opinions differ on the value of mandatory minimum sentencing in controlling the crack epidemic, there appears to be universal agreement that something has to be done to intervene in the destruction of families caused by crack use.

Dysfunctional Families

One of the tragedies of crack use is the harm it inflicts on innocent family members. Individuals trapped within crack dependency are typically incapable of normal functioning and their families tend to suffer from confusion, unpredictability, and violence. Care and concern for children is often overlooked by crack-addicted parents in the never-ending pursuit of the next fix. Some parents even expect their children to deal crack to help shore up their sagging finances. Jonathan Beaty, a journalist researching the dysfunctional effects of crack on families, reports:

The extra cash that appears on the kitchen table can persuade parents to look the other way while their children are heading into trouble. Denise Robinson, founder of the Detroit community-action group Saving Our Kids, even recalls a mother who dissuaded her son from returning to school. "He had been a good student. He had good grades," says Robinson. "But he was making $600 a week dealing crack. So his mother wanted him to keep dealing."21

Poverty is one of the most common causes of family dysfunction, and crack use only deepens family poverty. When most of a family's financial resources are spent on crack, little is left over for basic family needs. Not only does crack use up most of a family's money, few crack addicts are capable of full-time regular employment because of their need to smoke crack several times a day. According to Gilda Berger in Crack: The New Drug Epidemic, "Experts have found that while cocaine addicts manage to maintain their jobs, it is almost impossible for crack addicts to keep up their normal lives."22

In addition to financial strains, an addicted parent is unable to fulfill other basic responsibilities. Promises to children are neither kept nor remembered, and parents' expectations of children vary from one day to the next. Parents may be strict at times, indifferent at others, or absent from the home for days at a time. Children's illnesses may go untreated and high rates of absenteeism from school are common.

Few children in crack families live with both parents, since marriages rarely survive the strain of the addict's drug use. Even if the crack-addicted parent remains in the home, many children of crack users grow up with little or no parental guidance. Dolores Bennett, a fifty-five-year-old woman in Detroit who manages a neighborhood home for homeless kids of crack families, notes: "Most of these children don't have someone in their house who takes care of them and shows them they love them. Most of the children are taking care of themselves."23

Children who remain with an addicted parent often assume the additional stress of hiding family problems from outsiders. Pressured to maintain secrecy, children tend to avoid seeking the help they need. Failure to find needed psychological help often leaves children feeling insecure, frustrated, and angry. According to child psychologists, children often feel that they are the cause of their parent's irrational and dysfunctional behavior. Children of crack addicts suffer from mistrust of others, difficulty with emotional expression, and failed intimate relationships. Without treatment, all of these problems carry over into adulthood.

Crack-Related Illnesses

As destructive as crack is to the addict's family, the drug is even more destructive to the health of the addict. Medical complications resulting from long-term crack use show up daily in emergency rooms across America. Cardiac arrest, strokes, and liver failure are all well-documented results of crack use. In addition to illness and deaths directly linked to crack use, numerous indirect or secondary illnesses are linked to it as well.

Crack Addict

Three women addicted to crack—Teresa Wiltz, Diana Donnell, and Mia Mann—contributed an article to the April 1996 issue of Essence magazine called "Kicking Crack." In the article Donnell tells the following story of her desperate experiences on the road to crack addiction:

The first time I used crack, I was driving through the back roads with my girlfriend. At first I would just lace some weed with crack. Then weed disappeared from the street. You couldn't find marijuana anywhere, only crack. I knew I was hooked when I would do everything and anything for it. I took great pride in paying for my own drugs. I'd haul scrap iron. I'd sew. I felt like as long as I worked hard and paid for my own drugs, it was nobody's business what I did. But my judgment was off, way off.

I stole my grandfather's checks, and I got into some legal trouble because of it. I'm still paying restitution. The last year I used, I was almost killed three times. One man was strangling me until, gasping for air, I agreed to let him rape me. After that I started selling my body. Being in a small town, you know who the tricks [men who use prostitutes] are. And they know to come looking for you when they get paid. Then in 1988, my only girlfriend, my best friend all my life, was brutally murdered in Baton Rouge over some cocaine. The first thing people said when they heard about it was, "They got Juanita, Diana's next." That made me angry. I felt like I had to use even more to show people not everyone would die from using crack.

I was totally frustrated and alone. I didn't care what I looked like. I was worshiping the drug that had become my god, my man, my friend. From the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, I put all my efforts into smoking. I was a connoisseur. I could always tell what it was cut [diluted] with. When I would buy my rocks I would taste them, touch them with my tongue. Dealers didn't like that, but I didn't care. I wanted to know what I was getting.

But at some point you have to stop. Your body gives out on you. You can only get so high. When you try to get past the high, you become despicable, oblivious to the people around you.

Some of these illnesses are commonly found among those who take drugs intravenously. Although crack is usually smoked, intravenous crack use is common in crack houses. Addicts tend to share needles, meaning that they risk contracting diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, a severe liver inflammation. Nobody knows for sure how many crack addicts contract AIDS in this fashion, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), use and abuse of illicit drugs, including crack, have become the leading risk factors for new cases of HIV infection. NIDA also reports that hepatitis is spreading rapidly among intravenous drug users.

A Particular Problem for Women and Children

In assessing health problems associated with crack, public health officials paint a bleaker picture for women than for men. NIDA maintains that crack can interfere with judgment and therefore lead to risky sexual behavior. Women addicts are particularly at risk because they are often forced to resort to prostitution to pay for their drugs. It is not unusual for female crack addicts to spend their entire day in crack houses trading sex for crack perhaps a dozen times. Even women who manage to avoid turning to prostitution are still at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases because rape is a common occurrence in crack houses.

Of even greater concern to society has been the fate of children born to crack-addicted women. Although initial fears among health professionals that such children would suffer severe and permanent brain damage have since proved unfounded, so-called crack babies do face some risks.

Perhaps the greatest of these risks is exposure to HIV/AIDS, which can be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby, either before or during childbirth or later through breast-feeding. Timely treatment of a pregnant HIV-positive patient with potent drugs like AZT or protease inhibitors can prevent this kind of transmission in many cases, but the same factors that keep crack addicts from seeking help—poverty and fear of the police—often keep the pregnant crack addict from getting the care that could prevent the infection of her baby with the deadly virus.

The many tragedies of crack use are dark realities of the crack and cocaine industry. The thousands of tragic stories surrounding cocaine and crack are not just the actions of addicts, but also the result of the actions of myriad people throughout the Western Hemisphere who make up a far-flung cocaine partnership.