Episode 5: The Epidemic

Introduction (Narrated by Joe)

When I was in middle school, every September we had to do something called the Pacer Test in gym class. I think this story might resonate with a bunch of you - I grew up in Philadelphia, but Prasanna told me the Pacer Test also reared its ugly head in the St. Louis area, so it seems to have a national reach. We were initially gonna play you some audio from the test, but apparently we can’t because of a thing called copyright law? Feel free to look it up on YouTube, but be warned: it may stir up some memories you’ve tried very hard to forget.

Those words still give me chills. Basically it’s an endurance test - you run back and forth across the gym for as long as possible - no one wanting to be the first to drop out in front of all of their peers. It’s horrible. But we want to use the pacer test as an analogy. Imagine, if you will, that on the day of the pacer I decide to play basketball during lunch and I twist my ankle - not badly enough to go to the hospital, but it hurts. Gym is the period after lunch, and I decide to give the Pacer a go - it’s a big part of my gym grade. But after two laps, I decide I shouldn’t be running on my ankle, and I drop out.

A couple weeks later, the principal gets a report with all of the students’ scores, and they see my score on top - a two. Immediately alarms go off. The school must have a fitness problem. So the principal moves quickly to make changes - students used to get passes so that they could use public transportation for free to get to school. Not anymore. Every student has to walk to school. Students used to be able to get breakfast at school if they arrived early enough. Worried that the breakfast was contributing to obesity, the principal got rid of that too. Finally, convinced that sitting inspires a culture of laziness, the principal sold every chair and desk in the school. As you can tell, she was a big fan of Moynihan. It’s possible that 90% of students in my school actually were terribly out of shape, but even in that case, these weren’t helpful solutions.

Of course, none of that happened. My principal was always lovely during my time in school. But that hypothetical is an unironically accurate analogy to the crack scare, where my poor fitness score represents anecdotal evidence of a problem, and where my principal’s solutions represent a misguided, and even harmful, approach to a problem they hadn’t really measured.

Today, we’re going to explore the impact of crack cocaine in the United States, and specifically in poor, urban areas. Before we do, it’s important we understand that, regardless of how big a problem crack was or wasn’t, the response was racist and it was wrong. From the moment crack cocaine first became a news story, people in positions of power and the public at large, failed to show any interest in accurately gauging the scope of the drug. They let hysterical anecdotes shape their actions and opinions.

But even if we were to concede that crack was the greatest problem facing Americans in the 1980s and 90s, the War on Drugs was never the antidote. America looked at a challenge facing communities of color, and it cooked up various unhelpful strategies. The War on Drugs unjustly targeted Black and brown Americans, and nothing we learn about crack today or any other day will change that fact.

With that in mind, let’s get into the episode.

Chapter One (Narrated by Prasanna)

So all the way back in Episode 0 we talked about how this project is not primarily a journalistic endeavor. What we meant by that was that, yes, interviews are the central piece to this project and there other journalistic aspects to it, but we’re not trying to be objective here. We’re not presenting this story for people to pick it up and interpret it in anyway that they want to - we have a message we’re trying to convey. Now obviously it can be very difficult to make definitive conclusions about a topic as complex as the one we’re trying to cover right now, but we’ve tried our best to be clear about our interpretations of what we’ve learned up to this point. But that got a little harder going into this episode. The question we’re going to answer today - how bad crack actually was during the crack scare - is extremely complex.

But there are still somethings that aren’t up for debate.

So, have you guys ever heard of the show Myth Busters? It’s about these two very handy dudes how take a “myth” from the science world - like does having a cellphone out at a gas station cause the station to explode - and test it out to see if it’s true or not.

In case you were wondering, you will not blow up if you text while filling your car.

Today, we’re going to do our own version of Myth Busters - except with the crack cocaine scare. Crack was billed as a drug more dangerous and addictive than we had ever seen before, and there were a bunch of myths that came out of the scare, which were either originated or spread by politicians and the media - and we’re going to put them to the test.

Myth #1: Crack addiction

As we’ve mentioned, in the 80s crack was seen as a highly addictive drug. This was a central theory to the crack scare: that it had some sort of mind-bending power that hooked you immediately. Only 10 to 20% of crack users were addicts - and this was at the height of the scare. Actually, less than 1 out of 4 people who’ve ever tried crack have used it more than once.

Myth #2: Violence

Through purely psychological effects, it was also thought to cause extreme levels of violence - a direct source of the crime spike in the late 80s and early 90s. This myth is just flat out wrong. Crack has not proven to cause violent tendencies among users. Now, this doesn’t mean crack isn’t related to violence - it is. But that has to do with selling crack, not using it.

Myth #3: Crack vs. Powder

A huge element to the media’s portrayal of crack was that it was a much worse form of an already bad drug. Crack was for those cocaine addicts who couldn’t get enough of a high from powder.

But that’s not quite how it worked. Yes, crack does produce a more intense high than cocaine. But it also lasts for a shorter period of time. Furthermore, you’re consuming less of the actual drug every time you’re taking a hit. The director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse even testified in front of Congress in 2006 that the "pharmacological effects of cocaine are the same, regardless of whether it is in the form of cocaine hydrochloride [powder] or crack cocaine."

Myth #4: Crack Babies

In 1989, a study came out that, in Philadelphia city hospitals, one in every six babies were born to mothers addicted to crack. These “crack babies” supposedly had life-altering deficiencies: smaller heads, bad muscle tone, abnormal social behavior. The “crack baby” became symbolic to the crack cocaine scare: the ultimate individual moral failure, subjecting one’s own child to disease and distress because of personal drug use.

Enter our guest myth buster: Dr. Hallam Hurt. Dr. Hurt, after the initial study in 1989, began her own study on babies exposed to crack in utero. Her intention was to help doctors treat these babies effectively, minimizing any mental or physical damage they received. Dr. Hurt’s control group were babies not exposed to crack - but in the same socioeconomic position as babies who were. So her control group consisted mainly of low-income, predominantly Black babies.

Dr. Hurt tracked these babies for 20 years - well into their adulthood. What she found was astonishing. First, both groups of babies fared very similarly on various development and intelligence tests. Second, and here’s what’s most important, both the exposed group and the control group performed abnormally low on tests compared to the average American. Their IQs were significantly lower, as well as their school readiness.

What could have been the cause of this? Hurt’s team began to collect other data concerning the children. 81 percent of the kids had seen someone arrested; 74 percent had heard gunshots; 35 percent had seen someone get shot; and 19 percent had seen a dead body outside—and the kids were only 7 when this data was collected.

Hurt’s final conclusion for the study? In her own words: "Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”

Barbara Fields was a Senior Officer in the Boston Public Schools Office of Equity. She had a really interesting memory of how the idea of a generation of crack babies permeated educational spaces.

Barbara Fields: Well we were prepared to have a classroom of children, especially as it relates to the elementary grades. Previously to the position i was holding at the time, which was a central office administrative official, i was a first grade teacher. So as i went to some of the conferences kids as they entered school in the early grades. Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd grade, we were expecting to see a large influx of children experiencing the impact of their mothers’ addictions, so we were looking at having all kinds of classroom management issues, children having very short attention spans, an increase in children with special needs abilities, and how the district was going to address those issues. It felt that we were going to have more children who were more special needs, especially in inner city schools, and it felt like we would have more special needs kids than kids who didn’t need have those needs. So it became very frightening for educators. So the focus was on what would we do to be sure we could support those children when they arrived at the school doors.

What we actually saw, fast-forwarding 3, 4, 5 years when these children were going to enter the school setting, there was more hype than substance from what we felt we were seeing. That we didn’t see that large number of children, that what we saw often was some of the same kind of behavior in the past, children that were in need of services, but nothing to the degree of what we were hearing. So I think we were looking to see where were all these children we were expecting.


Now, this is all really important to know, but here’s the conundrum we’ve faced while trying to make this project. Talk to someone who grew up in a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood in the 80s, or even the 90s, and they’ll likely have vivid memories of how crack impacted their community. We got a chance to speak with wife and husband,  and Rickey McGee, on a number occasions. They both grew up in Dorchester, another predominantly Black neighborhood in Boston, and now work in their community as social philanthropists. Here’s Rickey talking about how he experienced crack growing up.

Rickey McGee: Wow, when I was young I remember vividly that there was a crack house on one of the main streets that we used to navigate and this was like 88. 89, and at that time I was 10, 11 years old and you know we was kids walking around the neighborhood looking for things to do, walking around with sticks, looking for things to not be in a summer camp, not be enrolled in programs. We’re just roaming around the neighborhood, but the crack house was always the realm of activity, people getting in fights, we’d hear gunshots in it, the door was always wide open but when we’d looked into the actual house it was dark as anything. So it was always like an adventure to go in there and one time we went in there, like 5,6 of us and we’re just running around, hitting people and looking at crack addicts seeing people that we’ve seen in the community that we know in the community. We seen some parents actually in there using drugs and that actually changed the shift of how I view people in my community. Seeing their lips white, seeing, you know, sexual activity, you know, obviously the drug use. Between mothers that I knew, grandmothers, aunts that was on in the neighborhood and it kinda shook it created a sense of defeatism as it relates to a community. The impact that it had on me, it kinda took the concept of community out of me, where I didn’t see... I either see you as a crack addict or a potential crack addict because eventually my father became one. It had a negative effect on me because it gave me the impression that these drugs are more powerful than the love that my father actually had for me. So it created a bitterness obviously in me as a young adult and a frustration and an anger.

And here’s Hajah.

Hajah McGee: It was sad because a lot of these individuals were kids that I played with in the community we went to the same schools we did community activities Or the same jobs as it was reiterated in regards to the red shirts and abcd and work in the summer camps together. It was really hard to look at that paradigm shift because it was inevitable. Either you gonna fall victim to it or you gonna be the one on the other end and selling it to somebody. This was what my neighborhood was. We knew if you went into ramsey park and you stayed in ramsey park after 6 o'clock this is what you were going to see. Before these hours you can be at the park... so it was really kind of cultural norm in the communities and in the neighborhoods so it was just … to deal with that growing up as a youth and really understanding that’s some form of trauma for a lot of us.

Remember Jeremy Thompson of the Haley House from episode two?

Jeremy Thompson: Well I didn’t have a negative view. And I didn’t have a great view of people. It was just something people did. As a kid, you just think this was recreational, you knew, but for me, i knew it was something i didn’t want to do because it was something that took my mother away from me. This is something, anything that kept a mother from loving her kids was something i didn't want to be a part of, and i knew that as a young man.

And here’s Michael Curry, who we’ve heard from a bunch of times.

Michael Curry: In my high school years, in the early 80s, I’m not sure if I was that conscious of what crack was. I just knew it was a drug, and there were other drugs when we were growing up in Roxbury. What made it very personal was having an older sister, maybe 4 years older than me, who was deep in the streets and got addicted to crack and seeing what it did to her. The real ugly side of that addiction is that she would come home and rob from her house, we would come home and things would be missing, Christmas gifts would be gone, bikes and you name it would be taken and she would’ve sold those to feed her addiction. We were often in situations as young kids where we were raising our nephews and nieces because she would get addicted to drugs, come home, drop her kids off and go back to the street. My nephew and niece, who are now adults, have seen things that no child should’ve seen.

So what do we make of all of this? It’s clear that the impacts of crack cocaine were exaggerated in some ways. Crackheads, crack babies, and crack violence were myths that were certainly blown out of proportion. But ask any of the 4 people we heard from just now - or for that matter, ask anyone who lived in a low-income urban area during the late 1980s, and they’ll pretty much all tell you that crack had a significant impact on their communities.

But this evidence is still just anecdotal. In Part 2, Joe’s going to take a deep look at the statistics surrounding crack use in the 80s, in order to find out just how bad crack impacted some of these communities.

Chapter 2 (Narrated by Joe)

In episode three, I spent a significant amount of time describing how poor data collection on crack was, but for some reason we walked into this episode thinking we could give you a clear idea of crack’s impact. It’s honestly hard to know how many people were using crack during the 80s - let alone who was addicted, and at what cost. In the past, academics have used stand-ins to try to measure crack use, like cocaine arrest rates, the rate of low birthweight babies, and homicide rates. But those academics are the first to admit that those stand-ins are imperfect, and some of them may even be misleading.

Prasanna already told us about the myth of “crack babies”, so let’s take cocaine arrests, for example. It’s possible that the increase in arrests wasn’t mainly due to an increase in the sale and use of cocaine, but because of the increased emphasis in punitive policing, which we’ve learned so much about throughout this series. Cocaine-related emergency room visits was another proxy for the prevalence of crack. But remember episode three? That data didn’t distinguish between crack and powder cocaine, and the DEA claimed that drug trafficking, to the US, which included cocaine, was happening at unprecedented rates during the 80s. We just don’t know how many of those emergency room visits were actually because of crack and not powder cocaine.

We do know that drug addiction has never been quite as pervasive as we’ve often been led to believe. Cocaine use in all forms peaked at around 3% of the population, and “hardcore” use was even less common. Knowing that somewhere from 10-20% of crack users become addicted, we can say that it’s basically statistically impossible that crack use was as widespread as many claimed it to be. Still, if even a tenth of a percent of US residents during the 80s used crack regularly, we’d be looking at a significant number of people - around 240-250,000. That’s enough of a reach to scar families and communities, as many people say the drug did.

Aaand that loops us back to our initial question about impact. What was the depth and breadth of those scars? I’ll be honest, we ran into a bit of a wall in trying to answer that question. Then we came across two initiatives run by the National Institute of Justice, or the NIJ. Recognizing that policymakers were making sweeping changes to drug policy without any reliable information, the NIJ started the Drug Use Forecasting Program and the Careers in Crack Project in 1987. They earnestly hoped to learn about how crack affected the lives of drug addicted individuals, those around them, and their communities at large.

This another one of those sections with a lot of dense information. To this point, we’ve tried really hard not to overwhelm you with data. But the facts of these two projects, are so, so important, so please just try to bare with me.

The Drug Use Forecasting Program, the DUF, measured illicit drug use among arrestees in 24 cities by testing their urine samples. Of all arrestees in all cities who tested positive for using cocaine within the previous 72 hours, only half admitted doing so. Three-quarters of those who did fess up reported having used crack. See, the DUF had to ask because the urinalysis they used couldn’t distinguish between crack and powder cocaine… That alone should tell you something about crack’s highly feared pharmacology, right? But anyway, that’s a high proportion of people using crack. And during the late-80s, in nearly every city observed by the DUF, at least forty percent of arrestees for any crime, not just drug crimes, any crime, tested positive for cocaine. In many cities, that number was over fifty percent. In my hometown, Philadelphia, nearly 80 percent of arrestees in the DUF sample in 1989 tested positive for cocaine. If we assume that three-quarters of those people were using crack, the numbers are still staggering.

The Careers in Crack Project found some pretty jarring results as well. The project looked at over 1,000 hard-drug abusers and sellers, most of whom were crack-involved. It found that while crack didn’t really  increase users’ rates of committing most forms of non-drug crime, women who had already engaged in prostitution before using crack would work as prostitutes “substantially more frequently after becoming involved with crack.” It also found that by 1988, crack had become the most lucrative drug for people in the study to sell. And that those who used crack often sold crack - and then often used that extra money to intensify their drug use. We introduced Mary Curry in episode 2. She’s been in addiction recovery for 26 years, but she was willing to share her story to give us a better understanding of crack addiction. She corroborated that point.

Mary Curry: I was supposed to be selling drugs - I'm supposed to be selling some cocaine for someone, and i remember one time, me and his brother had smoked all of it. You got people who sell drug that use the drug. Most of your stuff is gonna get used at some point because you get addicted to it.

So far that all sounds pretty damning of crack. But Careers in Crack shares a crucial piece of information: virtually every crack user they interacted with had previously been a regular user of other illegal drugs. One percent of crack users in the study reported that crack was the first illicit drug they had ever tried. This was true of Mary as well.

Mary Curry: No, crack’s not the first drug I used. I think it was - was it my last? But at 15, I was smoking weed, drinking wine, and at some point, I was smoking weed, drinking wine, drinking liquor, taking tabs, selling tabs. I learned in white neighborhoods - I lived in Gardner, Ma, Fitchburg, I hung out in Leominster. I learned in white neighborhoods, you do acid, mushrooms, sniff black beauties, oil, hash oil, or hash.

So most people in the Careers in Crack study revealed “extensive” histories of drug abuse, drug selling, and other legal violations prior to ever trying crack. I can’t stress how important this is. Crack wasn’t an unprecedentedly addictive drug. It, like every hard drug before and after it, had its biggest impact on the two most at risk populations: existing drug-users and young people, who have typically used illicit drugs at higher rates than older adults. Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone who fell victim to crack falls into one of those two profiles. Both the DUF and Careers in Crack were looking into the lives of people who had reached some threshold of hardship - arrest, imprisonment, entry into a drug treatment program, et cetera.

But I think these studies tell us what we need to know. Crack is, of course, a drug with potential dangers, and it definitely was present in poor, urban communities of color. That’s particularly reflected in the finding that, for many people in the studies, it became the most profitable drug to sell. Its characteristics - being easy to produce and cheap to buy made it generally accessible in poor communities when other, more expensive drugs may not have been. But crack wasn’t the causal problem.

The majority of crack-involved people in the Careers in Crack sample lived in neighborhoods where people often struggled to get by, and their hardships existed well before the 1980s and the rise of crack cocaine - many of those who sold crack came from families where at least three generations of their ancestors had lived below the poverty line for their entire lives. Many sellers were homeless, or had been in the past.

Crack didn’t drive its users to harmful behaviors - particularly violence or unregulated prostitution - but it did increase those behaviors among people who were already involved with them.

I think liberal people often try to downplay crack’s impact in order to argue that the War on Drugs was a mistake, but in doing so, they really overlook an important factor in all of this. It’s clear that crack made a mark on communities across the country. But by and large, it did its worst on people who society had already cast aside. The big epidemic wasn’t crack, it was generational poverty and systemic inequity.

If crack had never been introduced to Black communities, the problems that it exacerbated would still exist - we’d just find something else to pass the blame to. And that’s why, even after the crack scare has faded into the background, the challenges facing poor Americans of color have held strong.

Crack didn’t create health deficiencies among the Black babies in Dr. Hurt’s “crack baby” study Prasanna told us about, systemic poverty did. More specifically, a lack of access to adequate prenatal care and other health services. That examples holds in a larger context. Poverty, along with racist social policy, drives the lack of opportunity within many communities of color for adequate health care, education, nutrition, housing, employment - many of the key components to a high quality of life.

People have always used drugs, they always will, and unfortunately some people are gonna pay steeper prices for their use. But when we as a country finally bother to earnestly address the inequities we’ve created and think intelligently about drug policy, we’ll minimize those dangers.

Chapter 3 (Narrated by Prasanna)

Alright, so if you’ve followed along to this point, you might still have a big question about crack and communities of color: What about the crack-related violence politicians and media talked so much about? Shouldn’t that be considered in our discussion of crack’s impact? Definitely. Crack first appeared in American cities around 1984, and according to US Department of Justice statistics, in the eight years, between then and 1992, the US violent crime rate rose by about 52 percent. Here’s Hajah McGee:

Hajah McGee: I saw communities become divided. Literally where you would be on one side of the street and know people there, and then you would be on the other side of the street and know people there, and you had to have a happy medium, so you had to meet in the middle of the street because nobody owned that. So that was the only way you were able to communicated.

And it was very unfortunate because neighbors became enemies. Family members became enemies. And it was very unfortunate.

But in the Careers in Crack Project, use is the operative word. While violence was not necessarily associated with individuals who simply used the drug, crack selling was strongly associated with violence in the context of that study.

Alright now it’s time to talk you guys back a little bit. Remember Episode 2, so many weeks ago? We talked about this thing called an underground economy. These are essentially just informal, oftentimes illegal, economies that arise when people don’t have formal employment opportunities. A good example of this is...you guessed it, selling crack. Rickey McGee talked about the lack of opportunity that forced young people in his community to participate in the underground drug market when he was growing up.

Rickey McGee: The Red Shirts was a program that was started by the mayor i think it was Kevin White when he was mayor. I was there during the Flynn era, Ray Flynn, and what basically you sign up at a community center. Red shirts was you put on these red shirts and all of you from the community go to like a different area of boston and help clean up whether it was boston common whether it was your own neighborhood and we got weekly checks and the checks was pretty substantial for kids in the inner city and it allowed us enough capital to go school shopping at the end of the summer. You know let us get some items, there was also abcd which my sister did.. You know ymca things like that but red shirts was the primary one that people in the city was optimistic and looking forward to. But once those programs shut down, drugs and selling drugs was really the only economic base that people was willing to allow a 12 year old to entertain even beyond the summer.

Rickey also said that even before programs like the Red Shirts were losing funding, some kids decided to sell drugs because they sa  w more financial opportunity there.

Now all of these underground economies are characterized by one thing: The most important thing to understand about an underground economy is that there’s no way to formally arbitrate business disputes. Carl Williams, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, gave us an analogy.

Carl Williams: Crack - base cocaine, crack cocaine in itself didn’t create any violence in communities ever. What did is the war on drugs. Because you have a situation where you criminalize - so i’m gonna explain a thing called self-help, which is a legal concept. And i’ll talk about it about a house. I actually rent my house to some northeastern students. If they did something that i didn’t like, i have to go into court, i have to get an eviction order, i have to go to them - an eviction order is something from the court, i can’t as a landlord evict someone, you have to go you’re excited now. It’s like getting deported. Or you can do something called self-help, which is frowned on by the law and is generally illegal in almost all circumstances. I could go to the house, use keys, get in, pack up everything, put it in a bag, throw it on the curb, and bolt the doors and shutter the house. That’s frowned upon. And what would happen if i did that? They would go to the court and say, ‘hey, he locked us out, he owes a ton of money. We have to get back in the house, or he has to give us money for everything he ruined, and the fact that we’re on the street now, so we’re gonna stay at the Taj for a few nights and then he’s gonna pay for it all.’ Which would probably happen.

And how does that parallel drug dealing?

Carl Williams: Let’s say there’s a few kids on the block on the same street, and they’re selling rock. And someone rolls up to them and says, ‘hey, you gave me crappy drugs last week. I want better drugs, and i want you to replace my product.’ So someone comes up and says, ‘yo man, you didn’t give me the right stuff, you owe me some money.’ That just escalates, the person’s like, ‘go to hell, I’m not gonna give it to you.’ You don’t file in small claims court and go to court. So you can’t, you can’t solve that. So what you have to do is either just take it or you have to resort to self-help. You have to say look, I’m gonna do that myself. And how do you do that? Cause generally it’s kids standing on the block.

And then what you have is like, look I’m selling on the block, i have a lot of money on me, and I’m afraid that someone might be a disgruntled client of mine, purchaser. And they might have to resort to self-help. And I might think no, you didn’t do that, or i might go to my supplier, and the supplier might say, ’hey, i thought you were gonna give me this, you promised me that, you owe me this.’ And none of that can be solved by even the civil justice system. And because it is criminalized, it’s the same thing with sex work. With sex work, you see all kinds of people doing all kinds of violent acts. You see all kinds of people raping people. Very, very frequently happens. Brutalizing people. Kidnapping people, killing people. And why? Because they’re like, ‘look, you’re a sex worker, you’re not gonna go to the police.’

And when you see situations that are decriminalized, that almost disappears right away. And i think the decriminalization, legalization model makes it so like, hey look - and if you look, drugs, addictive drugs that are classified, sold by prescription, you don’t see people in the non-underground market… like Walgreens isn’t shooting up CVS, that doesn’t happen. And both of us are laughing, like that’s silly, but they’re making a whole bunch more money. I heard that sales for percocet, have you heard the number? It’s in the, in the united states it’s in the b-billions of pills last year. So I’m like, wait a minute. I didn’t take any percocet last year, i don't know if you did, but somebody got my five, right? If it’s in the billions. And that’s an enormous amount of money. And people aren’t shooting - well, as far as I’m aware, people aren’t killing each other in the streets.

So frequently Carl Hart talks about this, the problem is the war on drugs. The problem is the criminalization. If we move to a path of decriminalization and legalization, how many people have been killed over weed in Colorado? No one’s - they have the weed, i don’t do any drugs, I’m like a prude - I’m like a prude that says all drugs should be legal, but they have the - this is what i would do if i did any drugs: they have the chocolate-peanut butter weed, so they’re Reese’s peanut butter cups weed. How many people have been killed over weed Reese’s peanut butter cups? The number is zero. That number is zero.

We weren’t able to confirm that exact number, but we’re inclined to believe Carl on this one.

Carl Williams: No one’s going and sticking up dispensaries. No one’s going to the doctor and saying you better give me a prescription or i’m gonna kill you. Cause there’s structures that support that, there’s civil law that enforces that. There’s criminal law that will protect that. And i think in a legalized marketplace, i’m not gonna say you’re not gonna see any of that, but you’re not gonna see people armed to the teeth and doing drive-by shootings to say i’m gonna protect my drive through that sells weed. Or sells ecstasy. Or sells something else.

And on top of all that, is this ever-present influence of poverty. Think of college - it’s not too often you hear of gun violence in the average college drug market. But college is inherently tied to opportunity - the opportunity to explore your passions, study abroad, do a couple of internships, and start a career in the field of your choosing. I’d imagine that a college drug dealer might walk away from their business for a number of reasons - they want to focus more time bringing up their grades, they don’t actually need the cash to survive and decide the risk isn’t worth it, or maybe they’re doing an internship out of town for the summer, and it’s not feasible doing business away from school. Sure, life doesn’t wind up being “happily ever after” for many college graduates, but the options that a college experience offers are worlds away from what was available to many poor young people of color during the ‘80s. Most of the people selling crack weren’t deciding between doing that or taking a position at their father’s insurance agency. So when the choice was between backing out or engaging in the violence associated with selling drugs? Some people chose the option that didn’t leave them without a means to provide for themselves, and in many cases, the people they cared about.

Conclusion (Narrated by Joe)

Let me be very clear about what we think everything in this episode means. Crack is a hard drug. Like all hard drugs, crack poses certain potential dangers, to anyone who uses it. But crack isn’t more dangerous than every other drug we’ve ever seen. In fact, it doesn’t even differ pharmacologically from powder cocaine. Crack did not create an uncontrollable wave of new drug addicts. But crack was unique in that it was introduced to America at the same time that there was an influx of powder cocaine into the country, which drove down its price. It’s also fairly easy to convert powder to crack, which was even cheaper - this made it viable to use and sell in poor, urban communities. Finally, evidence suggests that crack did indeed exacerbate some existing problems in communities of color, and the underground market led to violence.

But crack’s impact in poor neighborhoods of color, while undeniable, is widely misunderstood, and in some ways, overblown. Crack in our cities during the 80s and 90s was a symptom. It was a sounding of the alarm on a generations-old problems, and an example of what 300+ years of oppression creates. We don’t think addiction is a good thing. We don’t think drug-market violence is a good thing. But we do think we now have a decent understanding about what made drug use unique in poor communities of color in the 80s and 90s, and what led to violence in the crack market. Given the impossible predicaments our country has thrust many people of color into, we can’t condemn them for sometimes making what we, from the outside, consider less than ideal decisions. 

The War on Drugs, in theory is a band-aid. In practice, it’s a band-aid dipped in cyanide, but in theory it’s a band-aid. Even if implemented non-discriminatorily, it would be a confusing, incredibly expensive, surface-level intervention that ineffectively tried to address deep, deep issues. And we can’t even say that the War on Drugs was an earnest attempt at addressing violence or addiction because so many people get arrested simply because they used or had drugs, not because they were addicted, which is best addressed through treatment anyway, or were dealing, which is obviously a more complex choice than we like to acknowledge. Disenfranchised people deserve much better. And we’re gonna get into what that might look like, but first, we have a couple more things to touch on.

This episode should make it clear that drugs impact people differently depending on their environment and their experiences. Hopefully our previous episodes made it clear that the same is true of the criminal justice system. Well, just as those differences exist across race and class, they exist across gender and sexual identity. Next week, we’ll look at how drugs and particularly the war against them have uniquely impacted women, queer, and/or transgender people of color.