In the City, Pot Helps Addicts Kick Crack

When four people were shot in a robbery at a marijuana dealer's apartment above New York's Carnegie Deli this summer, many newspapers, including the New York Times saw it as an occasion to tut tut that, as the Times' headlined it, "Violent Crimes Undercut Marijuana's Mellow Image."

Far less attention (in fact, no Times coverage at all) was given to a Justice Department study released just a month later which found that amongst young people getting arrested, marijuana use has increased in direct parallel with the decline of crack -- a phenomenon that also tracks perfectly the dramatic fall in violent crime seen in the 1990's.

Contrary to The Times' notion that pot has become a new cause of violence, this data suggests just the opposite. It also implies that the on-going crackdown on marijuana use may ultimately be counter-productive -- and could help reverse an unusual, spontaneous trend in which younger kids saw and disliked what hard drugs had done to their parents and older siblings and turned to pot instead.

Though many people believe marijuana law enforcement has eased -- unbelievably, former President Clinton told Rolling Stone he thought that "most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized" -- there were more marijuana arrests during the Clinton administration than under any previous President. Pot arrests nearly doubled between 1980 and 1999. And 88% of these arrests -- over 40% of all drug arrests in the U.S. -- are for marijuana possession, not sales.

As in most of the drug war, the burden has fallen disproportionately on minority youth. Though African Americans make up just 12% of the population (and 13% of drug users), 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those convicted are black, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

But, say ethnographers, it was black and Latino youth themselves who spurred the end of the crack epidemic and the precipitous fall in violent crime that followed. Ric Curtis, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at John Jay College in New York City has studied street patterns of drug use for decades.

"There are several lines of evidence [for the idea that minority youth began substituting pot for crack]," says Curtis. "The ethnographic evidence dates back to 1988."

"Back then, a lot of young black crack dealers in Flatbush were switching from smoking crack from glass stems to smoking "woolah" joints." he says. These were developed by West Indians, who would roll marijuana joints in a tobacco leaf and sprinkle some crack into the mix. The leaves were purchased at smokeshops for $1 each.

When a crackdown on headshops began, these leaves became hard to get. To replace them, says Curtis, Rastas began to buy Philly blunt cigars and put crack as well as marijuana inside.

"They did that to wean themselves off the stem," he says. "For lack of a better word, smoking weed blunted the desire to keep chasing that pipe. The dealers were telling us they did this because otherwise they would smoke up all their money."

Finding it an effective way of kicking crack, the dealers gradually reduced the amount of cocaine in their blunts until they became pure pot and tobacco. Then, says Curtis, they "began dogging their partners and friends for [continuing to smoke] crack." Though dealers still made their money from crackheads, no one wanted their sisters, girlfriends or other family members as customers.

33-year-old Awilda, a Brooklyn resident who requested that only her first name be revealed, is one of the former crack users who found marijuana helpful in stopping the pipe. While in jail for a crack-related assault, she swore on the Bible that she would never go back to that drug. When she found herself using it again, she decided to try weed instead. "It made me forget the crack," she says. "It's been four years since I smoked it and I have no more desire for it. I like blunts better."

In 1990, the Philly Blunt craze broke out of the ghetto. Blunt t-shirts became popular with teens everywhere -- as white suburban kids picked up the latest inner city fashion. "My interpretation is that the t-shirts were an anti-crack message," says Curtis, "The blunts took off amongst all kids not just dealers," as crack began to fall away.

And, by 1993 and 1994, quantifiable data started to back the ethnographic research. The federal studies which track drug use amongst arrestees began to show a decline in crack-positive urines and an increase in those testing positive for marijuana.

The trend brought enormously positive results. "You don't have junior assaulting Grandma to knock the gold out of her tooth to get another hit of crack. Instead, he's spending $10.50 a day between three guys on a blunt -- rather than $500 a day, robbing, assaulting, etc. to get that crack. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out which drug you'd rather have them using," says Curtis, adding, "it was directly related to the drop in crime."

'That's a gateway, all right," he continues. "I'm almost willing to accept Nancy Reagan's gateway effect [that pot leads to hard drug use] if she'll accept mine. It's a gate that swings both ways and I think [it's stronger in our direction]. It's not a gateway in for many, but it's a way out for some."

With inner city kids focused on drugs like pot which allow them to retain a sense of self-control, measures to increase price or decrease availability could really backfire. In Liverpool, England in the 1970's, for example, a bust-related pot shortage helped trigger a heroin epidemic. More recently, black rappers have begun writing songs about ecstasy, which had previously been seen as a white drug.

Curtis says that distribution networks for ecstasy have not yet penetrated the ghetto -- but he thinks he knows how they will start. A dealer who was one of his subjects was the cellmate of a Hasidic youth charged in one of New York's major MDMA busts. "If ecstasy folks start spending time in Riker's, it could produce new networks," he says.

While ecstasy certainly doesn't have the potential that crack did to devastate an entire generation (it is calming, rather than paranoia- producing and it doesn't produce the every-ten-minute need for more that crack did, to cite just two reasons), unlike pot, it can kill by overdose and may cause the deaths of some brain cells.

If we are ever to improve drug policy, at some point we will have to face up to the question of the relative risks of different drugs and the trade-offs made when utilizing limited law enforcement resources. Police breaking up pot distribution networks can't stop cocaine dealers. T

Efforts to drive up pot prices and crack down on sales are not risk-free. Higher prices do make the possibility of trade-related violence like the Carnegie Deli attack more likely, for one.

The New York Times may view the replacement of crack by pot as an aside to a "larger" story of how high prices may be making the marijuana market more violent, writing that "in some cases, officials said, the market for marijuana has benefited from the fact that many young people are loath to repeat the mistakes of their crack-addicted elders." But the real story is that young people are smart enough to make their own efforts to reduce drug-related harm.

People like New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani may see no difference between pot, crack and ecstasy -- but a whole generation of kids knows better. Helping them keep controls on their use-- rather than pushing law enforcement efforts that could destroy them-- is in everyone's interest.

Maia Szalavitz is the co-author of "Recovery Options, The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems (Wiley 2000).

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