Episode 3: How to Treat a Plague

Intro (Narrated by Joe)

Over the past two weeks, we’ve come to understand much of what went into making the crack scare possible - how it became such a massive undertaking. Today, we’re going to begin exploring the ways in which that phenomenon has manifested.

“Epidemic” and “plague” are medical terms - consider what they invoke in your mind. I think of the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in the 1790s. An epidemic so devastating that, according to estimations, half of the city’s population had either died or evacuated within a year. But during that time, many banded together to help those who were suffering. The doctor leading the efforts to stop the spread of the disease believed Black people were immune - of course, that wasn’t true. Nonetheless a number of Black Philadelphians put their lives on the line as nurses and gravedigger, for people who oftentimes looked down upon and abused them. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do when people are suffering from a disease. Pull together and help in any way we can.

Well, according to loud voices in the press and politics, during the 80s, our nation was experiencing a new “plague”. In the eyes of many, it was a plague unlike any that came before it. But in tackling this plague, we didn’t call upon our best doctors. We didn’t reinforce our public health infrastructure. What we saw was a very different way to treat a plague.


Chapter 1 (Narrated by Joe)

Freedom of the press is one of the core facets of American society - it’s a non-negotiable tenant to democracy. The media has significant protections against government censorship, and by disseminating important information to the larger US population, the press has been extremely valuable in keeping established powers in check. In the Civil Rights Movement, for example, the press played a crucial role.

The movement arguably reached its climax in 1965. As protestors, led by now-Georgia Congressman John Lewis, attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, they were stopped, chased, tear-gassed, and beaten by Alabama state troopers, on what came to be infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.” Reporters captured the brutality on video, and it made national television. Now remember, this was 1965. There was no cable or DirecTV. There were three channels. So forty eight million people watched the day’s state-sanctioned violence, and many decided to join the movement by traveling to Selma, or demonstrating in their own cities. Just months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I wish we could end on that happy note, but the media’s relationship with race isn’t all peachy. Racial bias in the media, like in pretty much every facet of American society, is now well-documented. We’ve become accustomed to prominent networks displaying mugshots of Black and brown suspects, while showing smiling graduation pictures of white people charged with the same crime. We’ve seen Black victims demonized as white suspects are humanized, and at times, somewhat glorified. And in the spring of 2015, the Baltimore Uprising, a complex expression of grief, frustration, and rage - a response, not only to the murder of Freddie Gray, but to decades of unaddressed oppression - was widely reduced to nothing more than a display of thuggery.

The recent opioid scare is a very relevant example of this. Whereas Black crack users were often vilified by mainstream media outlets, predominantly white opioid and heroin users have been framed as victims of a tragedy.

Andrea James: So when you look around you across the state, we have a bunch of white kids and young white adults who are strung out on opioids. And now, after decades of our children and our young adults being cycled in and out of incarceration for the illness of addiction, we now are getting some leverage in the commonwealth with them referring to addiction now as a public health issue.

That was Andrea James, who was in each of the first two episodes. Freedom of the press is important, but without any formal checks and balances, the press can sometimes act irresponsibly without any true consequence. Racial bias and a culture of unchecked media sensationalism in the 1980s proved to be an unfortunate and dangerous pairing.

Today we introduce Dr. Craig Reinarman. Dr. Reinarman’s book, Crack in America, is one of the foremost texts on the crack cocaine scare, and has served as something like a holy grail for us in understanding the national context of the scare. He outlined one prominent example that encapsulates the media environment of the time:

Craig Reinarman: There was a death of an all-American basketball star named Len Bias, who was a star player, had signed with the Celtics at the time, some would say still the greatest basketball team in the history of the game.

Those of you who are fans of basketball may know of Len Bias. Bias was one of Michael Jordan’s contemporaries, and some fans believed he was just as good.

Craig Reinarman: So here was this guy who was an all-American basketball star at Maryland and destined for stardom again on the Celtics, and boom he’s dead! And the claim is immediately that it was crack. Well it took months and months, maybe more than that, may have been a year or two or more, for the story really to come out that he never tried crack, and that he had dumped 7 grains of cocaine into a can of coca cola and drank it down. So he did indeed overdose and die. He may have some underlying condition we don’t know. The fact of the matter is it wasn’t a crack death. The fact of the matter is this extraordinary headline story, you know, from the absolute pinnacle of his career, it was taken as an indicator of the dangerousness of this drug, even though he never took it. They didn’t know that at the time, they jumped to conclusions. Here’s a guy who’s a star athlete at the top of his game. Nobody’s in better condition than that. And yet, there he is dead. So this tells you how deadly crack is. That was the inference in the stories on television, every single network and all the newspapers and major magazines, not just the trashy ones like the New York Daily News or the Boston Herald, the tabloids. But Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, all the best papers in the country. They repeat this over and over again. So this event, you know, was the iconic moment in the history of the crack scare and it seemed to launch everybody into a round of self-fulfilling fears.

Personally, I like the New York Daily News, but I guess that’s beside the point. Much of the national fear of crack was ignited by a lie - one that was never truly accounted for.

Craig Reinarman: The New York Times, for example, printed a story that claimed, and this is in the early part of the Crack in America book, the New York Times wrote a story saying “this drug is spreading everywhere, in the suburbs, blah blah blah.” Well that never happened, and 2 years later they had to write a story saying “oops, we exaggerated.” So, there were some mea culpas about that, but not many. They just sort of went happily on their way.

You’ve probably heard of each publication that Dr. Reinarman referenced because to this day, they’re widely seen as credible sources of information. Yet many of these outlets not only failed to report the truth; at times, they actively lied, fanning the flames of hysteria.

We also spoke with Marc Mauer, who has been with an organization called the Sentencing Project since the 80s. He authored the Sentencing Project’s now oft-cited 1990 report, which revealed the magnitude of racism in the United States’ criminal justice system. Marc shared his candid thoughts on the media’s role in the crack scare.

Marc Mauer: Well it was portrayed with very little thought, or very little research, or anything. There was a lot of mythology around it. I mean, I think the main thing that came across, first of all, were the racial dynamics. You had major news magazines and tv shows, and it was the face of a young Black man, occasionally young black woman  who was a crack user or seller. And with very little data to tell us whether that was accurate or not. There was this, lots of horror stories about so called crack babies being born, their mothers using crack while they’re pregnant and then the babies being born addicted, and that turned out to be much exaggerated later on, when actual research came out. The drug was portrayed differently from other drugs, there was very little attention paid to whether treatment or prevention approaches might be effective.

It’s pretty clear that, looking back, the media got this wrong. But how could they be this wrong? Well, it starts with the way statistics about drug use were collected. At that time, there were two main national sources for statistical information on drug use, both sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse: the Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN, and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (Reinarman and Levine 24).

Neither source collected particularly robust data. DAWN collected data for drug mentions in emergency room visits, which are distinctly different from ER visits induced by drugs. A drug mention is simply “when a patient, or someone with a patient, tells attending medical personnel that the patient recently used the drug, or occasionally, if a blood test shows the presence of the drug.” (Reinarman and Levine 25) So, while DAWN reported that cocaine was involved in an increasing number of ER visits in the 80s, in many of those cases, cocaine could have been incidental to the primary reason for the visit, and in most cases cocaine was only one of the drugs in a patient’s system.

DAWN’s data also failed to include two pieces of information that may have been critical to understanding the context of drug use in America at the time. First, the data did not include information about pre-existing medical or mental health conditions that make use more risky - things smart policymakers should want to know in order to take a more nuanced, targeted approach to addiction prevention. Second, DAWN doesn’t specifically distinguish between powder and crack cocaine, which seems like a significant obstacle in accurately discussing the impact of crack. However, Dr. Reinarman and his partner Dr. Harry Levine deduced that in the vast majority of DAWN-reported emergency room visits and deaths, cocaine wasn’t smoked - meaning it couldn’t have been crack.

The other data source, the National Survey on Drug Abuse, found that the number of Americans who had self-reported recently using illegal drugs began to decline in 1979, and in the early years of the crack scare, even the nation-wide use of cocaine continued to decline.

Despite these incomplete, but in some ways, slightly encouraging statistics, the media of the time still took some pretty extreme positions. In 1986, legendary news anchor, Tom Brokaw said ‘crack was flooding America and had become America’s drug of choice,’ even though there were no prevalence statistics on crack, and the drug use statistics that did exist didn’t seem to imply such a thing. In 1987, the New York Times published an article announcing a rise in the percentage of high school seniors reporting that they used cocaine on a daily basis. Daily use among seniors actually had increased… to 0.4%, a detail the article didn’t quite capture (Reinarman and Levine 26).

So while, yes, drug abuse, like always, certainly had a presence in the states, the portrayal of abuse and addiction was a little confusing.

What’s even more confusing is that, despite the ambiguity of drug stats, the press had decided with full conviction that crack was not only a problem but the problem. A passage from Crack in America captures this oddity perfectly. It reads, “Poverty, homelessness, auto accidents, handgun deaths, and environmental hazards are also widespread, costly, even deadly, but most politicians and journalists never speak of them in terms of crisis or plague. Indeed, far more people were (and still are) injured and killed every year by domestic violence than by illicit drugs, but one would never know this from media reports or political speeches.”

Certainly, by the height of the crack scare, drugs were considered relatively more important than other issues. A Gallup Poll from 1987 notes that 54% of youth aged 13 to 17 listed drugs as the biggest problem facing people their age. By 1989, 64% of Americans believed it was the most serious problem facing the country. (Reinarman and Levine 24) The media played a foundational role in driving this fear. The question is - why, of all the issues the country faces at any given time, was crack cocaine singled out?

Turns out, America has a very rich history of drug scares - crack cocaine being one in a rather long list. Each scare is unique - depending on the drug and its actual potential for harm - but all of them are defined by two characteristics.

First, they’re all promulgated by pseudo-journalism. The anti-opium crusade of the late 19th century was defined by fictional newspaper stories about Chinese men drugging white women into sexual slavery. The scare of reefer madness, aka marijuana, in the 1930s was based on propaganda telling of how a “Texas hitchhiker to murder a motorist, a Florida youth to murder his entire family with an ax, and a West Virginia man to rape a 9 year old girl” - all because they were high on pot (Reinarman and Levine 5 - 6).

The second characteristic unique to American drug scares, which directly plays off the first, is that they tend to single out a group of people - often based on ethnicity. The anti-opium crusade was about Chinese people. Prohibition, probably our most “successful” drug scare, was partially a response to the influx of European immigrants. African Americans were “cocaine-fiends” in the 20s. Reefer madness was linked to Mexicans in the 30s. And so on.

Crack, like cocaine and heroin before it, was largely used to vilify Black people. Studies have shown that crack, in the media’s portrayal, was unambiguously linked to low-income Black communities. In a CBS news documentary from 1986 called  “48 Hours on Crack Street,” essentially all of the crack users and dealers shown were Black. Verbal imagery in the print media was rampant with terms like “poor,” “troubled areas,” and of course, “ghetto.” Add to this the absurd stories about addicted women giving birth to animalistic crack babies and violence-prone crackheads willing to murder for their next hit, and the media was able to create, in the public’s mind, an image that the average crack user was poor, irresponsible, dangerous, and most importantly, Black.

But here’s what’s nuts: the raw majority of crack users at the height of the crack scare were actually white. Yet, as we mentioned before, American drug scares are most effective when linked to ethnic minority groups. For the media to successfully drive the hysteria of crack, for them to sell the idea that this was the new scourge of society (and subsequently sell newspapers), the media had to promote the dangers of crack: and that was best done by linking crack to Black people.

More striking than the general racism inherent to that idea is the fact that it worked. Crack, with its racialized connotations, terrified America. And perhaps this is a good time to remind everyone: this all went down less than 30 years ago!

The media reaction to crack was just the beginning. Hysteria’s power comes from its ability to spread, and those in Washington haven’t been known to squander power.


Chapter 2 (Narrated by Prasanna)

George H.W. Bush: Good evening. This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening, that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people.

That, in case you couldn’t tell, is neither Joe nor I. It is our 41st President, George H.W. Bush, talking to the nation in 1989. Get ready for some fear-mongering everybody!

George H.W. Bush: All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs. Drugs have strained our faith in our system of justice. Our courts, our prisons, our legal system, are stretched to the breaking point. The social costs of drugs are mounting. In short, drugs are sapping our strength as a nation. Turn on the evening news or pick up the morning paper and you'll see what some Americans know just by stepping out their front door: Our most serious problem today is cocaine, and in particular, crack.

Who's responsible? Let me tell you straight out -- everyone who uses drugs, everyone who sells drugs, and everyone who looks the other way.

Does “everyone who looks the other way” include the people who helped create the environment we described in episodes one and two? But fine, we’ll let Bush keep going.

George H.W. Bush: Tonight, I'll tell you how many Americans are using illegal drugs. I will present to you our national strategy to deal with every aspect of this threat. And I will ask you to get involved in what promises to be a very difficult fight.

Bush’s national strategy proposal was a four-part plan, which included committing an additional 321 million federal dollars for drug treatment (part one) and 250 million for youth prevention (part two). Based on the way our series has gone so far, you might guess that this sounds a little too good to be true. You’re right. Part three of the plan was a five-year, 2 billion dollar program to combat international drug production and trafficking from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. While our focus has been communities of color in the US, the War on Drugs has also had significant human costs in Latin America, something that Bush was complicit in. Finally, Bush called for an expansion of the criminal justice system across the board - more prisons, jails, courts, and prosecutors at the local, state, and federal levels to the tune of an additional $1.5 billion. $1.5 billion. Nearly three times more money than he proposed for treatment and prevention combined. But of course, this isn’t anything new. Politicians’ prioritization of punitive prohibition over treatment and prevention strategies is well-documented. Here’s what really made the speech infamous:

George H.W. Bush: This is crack cocaine seized a few days ago by Drug Enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House.

Yes, he just pulled out a big bag of crack on national television.

George H.W. Bush: It could easily have been heroin or PCP. It's as innocent-looking as candy, but it's turning our cities into battle zones, and it's murdering our children. Let there be no mistake: This stuff is poison. Some used to call drugs harmless recreation; they're not. Drugs are a real and terribly dangerous threat to our neighborhoods, our friends, and our families.

What makes this section of the speech so ridiculous isn’t so much the content of Bush’s words, but the story behind them. We asked Dr. Reinarman to explain:

Craig Reinarman: “See this?” He held up this bag of crack, this was seized in a park across from the White House. Well of course this had to be manipulated 16 ways from Sunday to get that to happen because there’s nobody smoking crack, you know, in the vicinity of the White House.

See, prior to Bush’s speech, the DEA was tasked with finding crack that was being sold in Lafayette Park - the space across from the White House. Bush essentially wanted to show that crack was so pervasive that it could be bought anywhere. Thing is, that wasn’t true. The DEA couldn’t find anyone selling any drugs, let alone crack, anywhere near the White House. So DEA officials convinced a Black high school senior, Keith Jackson, to make the trek to Lafayette Park, where they paid him $2,400 for the crack. The agents’ initial plan was to let Jackson go, but in order to tie up any potential loose ends, they later arrested him. Jackson was convicted on two of five counts of selling drugs and sentenced to ten years in prison.

It might seem that a reasonable judge would look at the ridiculous circumstances surrounding Jackson’s case and sentence him a bit more leniently. We know nothing about the judge who oversaw this case, but their personal views didn’t actually matter - due to mandatory minimum sentencing, which we’ll explain more in depth in a second, they had no discretion in sentencing Jackson. 

Now, we told you before that the War on Drugs began with Nixon - He signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act of 1970, which can be considered the first major piece of federal legislation in the War on Drugs. And he created the DEA - the organization largely responsible for the absurdity of the Lafayette crack case, and other human rights violations. But Nixon’s Drug War, for the strong precedent it set, was deeply polarizing. Nixon himself lost the political clout to keep it going by the mid-70s, and when Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 on a platform of decriminalization, it had completely fallen out of favor.

But the Drug War in the 80s, the crack cocaine scare, was different from the start. The country, by 1986, was morally certain that crack was an ultimate evil, and that those who indulged were criminals. Congress, the President (at that time, it was Reagan), and even the Judiciary, seemed single-minded in their desire to ramp up the Drug War. The question was no longer what should we do; it was how far should we go.

How we got to this point so swiftly and definitively is, even today, a bit of a mystery. Certainly much of it had to do with the media’s representation of crack, like we talked about earlier, but that doesn’t explain everything. To understand the long-term build-up to the crack scare, it’s important to understand political aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. As the Democratic party became a haven for Blacks and hippies in the 60s, a lot of moderate- and conservative-leaning Americans began to defect to the Republican party, especially in the south. By the 80s, as the country at large shifted to the Right, the Democratic Party splintered under the increasingly influential force of Reagan conservatism, which had effectively sold the idea that Democrats were fiscally irresponsible, and above all, soft. Soft on crime. Soft on drugs.

The rise of crack cocaine gave Democrats in Congress an opportunity to change this narrative. Len Bias dies in June of ‘86, and almost immediately, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill launches Congress into a legislative fervor, as he tries to pass a new drug bill before the ‘86 midterms. The bill goes back and forth - at lightning speed - between the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate, both parties engaging in a literal pissing contest over the issue of crack, desperately trying to prove that they own the “tough-on-drugs” moniker. At one point, candidates challenge each other to take urine tests to show their “commitment to a ‘drug-free America.’” When, for some reason that’s not very clear, one politician decides that isn’t going far enough, he proposes that candidates’ spouses should be tested as well (Reinarman and Levine 39).

So with all that’s going on in October of ‘86, just weeks before the midterms, President Reagan signs into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act: one of the harshest federal drug laws in the history of the United States.

Craig Reinarman: The response, the instinctive response, of Congress and political elites generally, is, oh we have a new drug scare? Let’s get tough. So, they increase sentences. They made these 5 year mandatory minimum sentences for very small amounts you could hide in a matchbook.

Mandatory minimum sentences are pretty self-explanatory. Certain offenses carry with them pre-specified penalties. If convicted, you’re guaranteed to go to jail - regardless of whether you have never had a criminal record, whether you are a straight-A student, whether you are providing for your family. These sentences are life-changing, or maybe more accurately, life-ruining.

Mandatory minimum specifications often vary by state, but the ‘86 drug abuse act established federal mandatory minimums for powder cocaine and crack-cocaine. But there was a huge disparity between powder cocaine and crack when it came to triggering the minimum.

Craig Reinarman: You know about the 100 to 1 disparity. It takes 100 times more powder cocaine, which 15 minutes earlier could’ve been what they made the crack out of, but 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger this mandatory minimum sentence. Which was far longer than the average sentence for simple drug possession. Or even minor sale before that.

It’s pretty clear what was so nutty about this part of the law: that powder cocaine, which could easily be turned into crack within a matter of minutes, was punished 100x less harshly than crack. Possessing 500 grams triggered the 5-year mandatory minimum; yet possessing just 5 grams of crack resulted in the exact same level of punishment. There was no scientific or medical reason for this. In fact, Congress held virtually no hearings with expert testimony on what should have be done to address crack cocaine. Instead, “tough-on-crack” simply became an extension of “tough-on-crime” - and the entire federal drug enforcement system became punitive in nature.  Mandatory minimums were supposedly created with the purpose of going after high-level dealers, but the ease with which someone could be sentenced for crack possession endangered anyone who used crack - even recreationally.

Craig Reinarman: So right away you have a ratcheting up of the number of people who were going to get prison terms, and the length of time in there. This is what I call the gateway to mass incarceration. They eliminated parole for these things. They doubled the mandatory minimum sentence if you had a slightly larger amount, so on. So there’s about 15 different pieces to these laws which had the effect of targeting what turned out to be the African American community, and in effect, throwing the book at them, in the sense of more opportunities to get arrested, surveilled, imprisoned for longer than before.

Remember - crack is a version of cocaine that can be sold cheaply, so it was more accessible in low-income communities than other drugs. By singling out crack with the harshest mandatory minimum sentences, Congress had - advertently or not - set-up low-income urban communities for decades of even greater state-endorsed oppression.

The consequences of the ‘86 law were immediate, both statistically, and in the eyes of people living in the most afflicted communities.

Rickey McGee: The police presence because there was a war on drugs so obviously everyone was getting stopped everyone was getting frisked pockets was being emptied out so people was being embarrassed i mean i seen cops roll up on a corner and pull one of the most known people in the community over that everyone loves whether they deal drugs or not. And just embarrass him pull his pants down take his hat off and that's when the disdain for police officers really came into fruition because we know they're not there to protect.

That was a Boston-raised activist, Rickey McGee - you may recognize his voice from our trailer. So in 4 years, the federal drug prison population had increased by nearly 50%, from 400,000 to 600,000. By 1998, that number had ballooned to around 1.3 million.

And ‘86 was just the beginning. It was followed with the anti-drug Abuse Act of 1988, and under President Clinton, the ‘94 Crime Bill. That law - the ‘94 law - gets a lot of attention today, especially in the context of the 2016 presidential election. It, in response to rising crime rates, massively increased the country’s prison system and created stricter punishment for various types of crime. The crime bill, while it by no means initiated our system of mass incarceration, is commonly seen as equally, or more harmful than the drug laws that preceded it. And yet, it was signed by a Democrat and, largely, supported by Democrats. The law had some liberal elements - like supports for victims of domestic and sexual abuse - but its passage nonetheless proved just how popular notions of punishment and imprisonment had become; bypassing partisan politics in a way few ideas ever have.


Conclusion (Narrated by Prasanna)

In the late 60s and early 70s, Presidents Johnson and Nixon - and really, much of the public - began to call for more policing in Black communities. This was a reactionary response to the racial politics of the 60s; against both the progress it propelled and the anger it unearthed. The rise of federal law enforcement and the even more dynamic creation of an unprecedented carceral system were, from the start, causally linked to racial animosity.

This new punitive movement, which reached its heyday during the crack cocaine scare of the 1980s, was premised on an ideology that re-explained racial inequality in terms of culture. Namely, that certain people were poor because they lived in a “culture of poverty,” - a culture that created dependency, that promoted single-parent households, drug use, and violence. It was much easier to lock up inordinate amounts of people if they were thought to be somehow behaviorally inferior to the rest of us.

But here’s the thing. The ideas of deficient culture and deficient behavior weren’t really applied to poor people; they were applied to poor Black people.

There’s no question that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and subsequent punitive drug policies were inherently harmful. But if we as a country had actually followed the supposed intent of these policies - that drugs are a scourge to society and were the biggest problem facing the country in the 80s and 90s - the actual effect would have been the creation of a system that objectively punished what we know as “drug offenses,” where rates of drug use and sale directly correlated with incarceration rates. As follows, drug-based incarceration would’ve done much more damage to white Americans - the U.S’s largest demographic of drug users, by raw numbers.

But that’s not how it went down. Instead, these laws wreaked havoc on Black and brown Americans, who, as of February 2016, accounted for nearly 80% of federal inmates imprisoned on drug charges. The reason for this? It goes back to that whole power of racism - much of which, in this context, is steeped in perceptions of culture.

Next week, we’re going to explain how the mechanics of racism were key to drug-based incarceration, how they seeped into the courts during the crack cocaine scare, and how we still deal with this problem today.


Lafayette Speech Audio Source: C-SPAN "Presidential Address on National Drug Policy."