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In 1982, when President Ronald Reagan declared a War on Drugs, recreational drug use in the U.S. was in serious decline. Reagan’s declaration of war tapped into a growing public sentiment against illegal drug use. So the declaration was more about politics than about drugs presenting an actual danger to the nation. For the constituency the Reagan administration was trying to reach, it was easy to construct African-Americans as the enemy in the War on Drugs — leading to mass incarceration that has imprisoned millions and devastated Black communities across the U.S. To sell the war, the administration created a monster: crack. And to go along with the crack monster, the government and media pushed a series of myths.
Myth 1: Crack Is a Different Drug Than Cocaine
From the beginning of the crack scare in early 1986, politicians and the media found it useful to speak of crack as if it were an entirely new substance with unprecedented powers. This was false, as pointed out by researchers Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine. Crack was only a new form of a very old substance. Crack is cocaine that has been cooked down to a smokeable base form, but its active ingredient is entirely cocaine, a drug in use in the U.S. for over a century. Just as humans can get more drunk much faster by downing shots of vodka than by sipping wine, so can we get a more intense “rush” by smoking crack cocaine than by snorting powder cocaine. The claim that crack was a new, deeply dangerous drug allowed the media to write dramatic stories about it and politicians to scapegoat and pass punitive new laws against it — laws that punished Black people.
Myth 2: Crack Use Was a Plague
The evidence that crack was neither instantly nor inevitably addicting was available in every government survey on drug use that asked about crack from 1987 on. A survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the late 1980s to measure the prevalence of drug use among young people found that despite the hysteria about crack “killing a whole generation of our children” less than 5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. had ever tried it, let alone gone on to use it regularly, abuse it, get addicted to it or die from it. Contrary to the confident predictions of politicians, police chiefs, drug treatment entrepreneurs and the media, crack use never spread very far outside impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.
Myth 3: Crack Is Especially Addicting
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse survey in the late 1980s, of those who had ever tried crack, 80 percent had not used it in the past year, and over 90 percent had not used it in the past month. Eventually, the same media that originally made false or misleading claims about crack being “instantaneously addicting” later admitted as much. In 1990, for example, Newsweek wrote: “Donʼt tell the kids, but thereʼs a dirty little secret about crack; as with most other drugs, a lot of people use it without getting addicted. In their zeal to shield young people from the plague of drugs, the media and many drug educators have hyped instant and total addiction.”
Myth 4: Crack Causes Crime and Violence
The media and drug control officials repeatedly claimed that crack was so powerfully addictive that it drove users to desperate acts of crime and violence. Politicians repeated these claims to justify their uniquely punitive new laws against crack. It turns out, however, that this allegation, too, wasn’t true. Of the 414 homicides in New York City in 1988 that the police defined as drug-related, only 7.5 percent were psychopharmacological in nature, where a drugʼs effects were said to be the cause. Most of those were alcohol-related. Nearly three-fourths (74.3 percent) of the total had to do with the dangers of doing business in a black market rather than with the direct behavioral effects of crack or even with crimes born of a craving for crack.
Myth 5: Crack Use During Pregnancy Produces ‘Crack Babies’
At the start of the crack scare in the fall of 1985, the news media began a series of startling stories about newborn infants who allegedly suffered severe and permanent health damage as fetuses because their mothers ingested cocaine during pregnancy. The forms of alleged damage ranged from premature birth, low birth weight and central nervous system disturbances to more severe neurobehavioral disorders, brain damage, birth defects and even sudden infant death syndrome. But researchers eventually discovered that, though cocaine use, like most other drug use, is surely not advisable during pregnancy, the impact of cocaine exposure on newborn health and development was, at best, greatly exaggerated in media accounts. Medical scientists conducted follow-up studies on these infants and found that nearly all of the allegedly irreversible damage attributed to crack could be undone with proper pediatric care and a decent home environment. In short, “crack babies” were more the product of the crack scare than of crack itself.
Myth 6: You Could Even Buy Crack in Front of the White House
On Sept. 5, 1989, President George H.W. Bush, speaking from the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major primetime address to the nation. During the
speech, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag of crack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House.” But in order to enable Bush to make that claim, the DEA had to figure out how to pull off a crack deal in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, where no sensible crack dealer would ever do a crack deal. Undercover DEA agents finally lured Keith Jackson, an 18-year-old African-American high school senior, to the park to sell them crack — but the deal was complicated by the fact that he didn’t even know where the White House was. After the DEA agents purchased the crack from Jackson for $2,400, they let him go.
Media Eventually Began Reporting the Truth, But It Was Too Late
By 1989, after serving as a key source of the claim that an “epidemic” of crack use was spreading over the suburbs and the nation, The New York Times reported (albeit far from the front page) that the opposite was true. But by then Congress had passed extremely harsh new laws against crack and financed an imprisonment binge that targeted African-Americans.
Sentencing Disparities Based on Racist Assumptions
Perhaps no aspect of the drug war has contributed to the rapid increase of African-American prisoners in federal prisons more than the federal cocaine sentencing scheme. Federal sentencing rules for the possession and sale of cocaine distinguished between cocaine in powder form and cocaine prepared as crack. A person sentenced for possession with intent to distribute a given amount of crack cocaine received the same sentence as someone who possessed one hundred times as much powder cocaine. The difference in crack/powder cocaine sentencing was significant because African-Americans were more likely to use crack, while white drug users were more likely to use powder cocaine. The new laws against crack helped to drive the most massive wave of imprisonment in the history of the United States.
Crack-Era Laws Sent More Young People Into Drug Business
Politicians typically justified their harsh crack-era laws in terms of the need to deter people from using and selling crack. But with persistently high unemployment and crushing poverty in the inner cities, researchers have come to conclude that imprisoning large numbers of people had the paradoxical effect of increasing the total number of youth involved in the illicit drug economy. One personʼs arrest was anotherʼs job opportunity.
The Crack Epidemic Followed the Same Pattern as Marijuana During an Earlier Era
Our critique of the crack scare draws upon a tradition begun by researchers such as Howard Becker. In Beckerʼs seminal book, “Outsiders” (1963), which outlined what came to be called “labeling theory,” he demonstrated that “deviance” is not an intrinsic property of behaviors or persons, but rather a label affixed to them by social control agents. One of Beckerʼs key illustrations was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the first federal law to criminalize marijuana use. He showed how a “moral entrepreneur”— Harry Anslinger, a Prohibition agent appointed to head the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — employed media manipulation, stereotyping and scapegoating to arouse public fear and get Congress to pass the law he wanted.
December 26, 2014
Nick Chiles | Atlanta Black Star
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