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4 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Crack, America's Most Vilified Drug

When it comes to crack, racism leads to rampant misinformation.

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It's no secret that crack cocaine carries a stigma. While casual pot-smoking and cocaine use are tolerated in college dorms and clubs, crack cocaine is often considered to be on a different level -- a "hard" drug, like heroin. Few well-off people would casually do, or suggest trying crack cocaine, and if they did, they'd likely get a litany of concerned responses from friends.

Powder cocaine use, however, maintains an element of glamor; it's associated with the culture of elites, from socialites like Paris Hilton to Wall Street traders. Crack, many people think, is such a hard drug that using it once could cause a user to act recklessly, even dangerously, become addicted, or die. But most of the claims about crack cocaine's potential for destruction have proven exaggerated or flat-out false. 

As neuropsychiatrist and Columbia University researcher Dr. Carl Hart told AlterNet, the hype around crack has a lot more to do with political expedience -- politicians cynically vilifying poor black people for electoral gain -- than the drug's actual potential for harm. Dr. Hart, the author of a recent book, High Pricesays targeting crack cocaine in black communities was easier than addressing more grave concerns like poverty, unemployment and dwindling federal aid for struggling families.

Crack rose to prominence in poor, black, urban environments (and not in the suburbs) not because of its overwhelming strength but because it was an affordable source of pleasure to communities deprived of basic resources. Crack caught on, certainly, but it did not ravage cities the way the media and politicians have claimed. Most people never become addicted, and those who do are likely vulnerable to the conditions in their environment that make addiction more likely.

Here are four myths about crack that arose thanks to drug war propaganda.

1. Crack in the ghetto. Despite racialized images of crack users, data from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reveals that people reporting cocaine use in 1991 were 75% white; 15% black, and 10% Hispanic. People who admitted to using crack were 52% white, 38% black, and 10% Hispanic. From a rational perspective, these numbers should not be surprising: whites are, after all, the majority, and have a long-standing tendency to use drugs at rates higher than blacks. Nonetheless, in 2009, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released data showing no drug matches crack in terms of racially biased convictions. According to the data, 79% of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders were black, 10% were Hispanic, and only 10% were white.

As far back as the early 20th century, cocaine use by African Americans was considered a threat to the safety of white America. A 1914 article in the New York Times warned, "Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to 'Sniffing' Since Deprived by Whiskey Prohibition." The article, by Dr. Edward H. Williams, proclaimed:

Most of the negroes are poor, illiterate and shiftless...Once the negro has formed the habit he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him away from taking the drug is by imprisoning him. And this is merely palliative treatment, for he returns inevitably to the drug habit when released.

[Cocaine] produces several other conditions that make the "fiend" a peculiarily dangerous criminal. One of these conditions is a temporary immunity to shock -- a resistance to the "knock down," effects of fatal wounds. Bullets fired into vital parts that would drop a sane man in his tracks, fail to check the "fiend."

"In other words," Dr. Hart wrote of the passage in High Price, "cocaine makes black men both murderous and, at least temporarily, impervious to bullets."

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