4 biggest myths about crack

For U.S. politicians, targeting drug users in black communities is easier than addressing poverty and unemployment

Topics: AlterNet, crack cocaine, Poverty, Unemployment, myths, Propaganda, Drugs, , ,

4 biggest myths about crack
This article originally appeared on Alternet.

AlterNet

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 Price,” says 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.”

“What shook me” about the article, Dr. Hart writes, ”was how similar the article was to modern coverage of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s.” He continues, “The message is that that crack users are irretrievable…The terms inner city and ghetto are now code words referring to black people.”

“The language is not as egregious in the ’80s, but we all knew what it meant,” Dr. Hart told AlterNet.

Dr. Hart points to the popular 1986 documentary “48 Hours on Crack Street” as an example of the racialized images of crack users. Even the New York Times noted the incessant focus on seemingly mentally unwell, poor black New Yorkers as the face of the crack trade. “We were meant to think the derelict was a crack addict; it was just as likely that he was an alcoholic,” the Times remarked.

Dr. Hart said language commonly used to describe crack users—”poor,” “troubled areas,” “inner-city,” “ghetto”—implies, “black people, and poor people, basically.”

In “48 Hours on Crack Street,” Dr. Hart says, “All the people selling drugs and misbehaving were black, and so when you associate these images with black people, the only conclusion a viewer can draw is that these are the people using these drugs.”

“The main thing we did with those images is make people believe the real problem was crack cocaine. Crack was making these people behave so poorly, and in ways we found egregious,” Dr. Hart told AlterNet. “So, if the real problem is crack cocaine, all you have to do is get rid of crack. You convince the people that all of your efforts have to be placed on ridding the society of crack. Now you don’t have to deal with issues like unemployment, lack of skills, job training—all you have to do is say we’re going to rid ourselves of this drug in our society….Nobody asked about whether people were employed, or responsible before crack cocaine, committing crimes before cocaine.”

Dr. Hart points out that problems associated with crack—children raised by family members other than their parents, violence and unemployment—existed before the height of the so-called epidemic, and continue to plague the same communities today.

“The unemployment rate for black folks before crack cocaine hit was nearly 20 percent. It was the highest before crack cocaine was introduced, and remains high today after crack cocaine is no longer considered this big problem,” Dr. Hart told AlterNet.

Plus, how ravaging can a substance be that, during its peak years, never exceeded an annual use rate of 5% among high school seniors? Dr. Hart points out that “The daily rate—the one most likely to lead to addiction—never exceeded 0.2%.” But because so few Americns had tried the drug, sensationalizing it was even easier than say, marijuana.

2. Crack vs. coke. The only difference between the crack and powder forms of cocaine is the removal of hydrochloride, which allows for a higher melting point, and the ability to be smoked. 

Crack cocaine is typically produced by mixing powder cocaine with baking soda and water over heat. The process removes hydrochloride and allows for an oily freebase of cocaine to float above the liquid residue. Separated, the freebase cocaine dries into a rock-like shape. But on a molecular level, crack and powder cocaine are still nearly identical.

 

What makes crack cocaine more potent is not its form, but the method by which it is ingested. As with other substances, smoking creates a quicker, more intense high than snorting.

Nonetheless, the law treats crack as if it were far more potentially damaging or threatening to society than powder cocaine. Before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, federal criminal penalties for crack treated 1 gram of the drug as equal to 100 grams of cocaine.

Now, the disparity has been reduced to a still large 18:1 weight ratio.

3. Crack babies. Recent research has found that claims suggesting crack-exposed infants would grow up with severe mental or physical deficiencies were exaggerated and misinformed. Amid a surge in crack cocaine’s popularity and the doom-and-gloom media frenzy surrounding it, a 1989 study in Philadelphia found that the mothers of nearly 1 in 6 babies born in Philly hospitals tested positive for cocaine. Crack paranoia led to wildly exaggerated claims about “crack babies” (and villainized black mothers as “crack whores”), including a social worker’s televised prediction that crack-exposed infants would not reach an IQ past 50.

Amid the hype, in 1989, Hallam Hurt, then chair of neonatology at Albert Einstein Medical Center and now a pediatrics professor the University of Pennsylvania, began a nearly 25-year study on the effects of in-utero cocaine exposure on 224 babies born at Einstein between 1989 and 1992. Half were exposed in-utero; half were not. All of them, however, came from low-income families, and almost as many were black.

“We went looking for the effects of cocaine,” Hurt told the Philadelphia Inquirer, but the two groups performed the same on development and intelligence tests. They were both, however, underperforming compared to the norm. “We began to ask, was there something else going on?”

As the Inquirer reported, “they found that 81 percent of the children 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 years old at the time. Those children who reported a high exposure to violence were likelier to show signs of depression and anxiety and to have lower self-esteem.”

“Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt told the Inquirer.

Still, she was not the first to draw such a conclusion. Doctors cannot tell the difference between crack-exposed and poverty-exposed infants. And among other studies, a 2001 comprehensive review of the effects of in-utero exposure determined: “[T]here is no convincing evidence that prenatal cocaine exposure is associated with any developmental toxicity difference in severity, scope, or kind from the [consequences] of many other risk factors.”

4. Crackheads. Even at the peak of crack’s popularity, only between 10 and 20 percent of users became addicted—a rate similar to cocaine and other drugs. Users who do become addicted to crack are more affected by a combination of other factors, like a lack of positive reinforcement, financial stability, and a strong support network.

What’s more, crack cocaine is not as unpredictable as some may think. Dr. Hart told AlterNet that claims that using crack for the first time can cause users to become addicted or violent are wildly imaginative. “We have given thousands of doses of crack cocaine in our lab, and we get predictable effects—increased drug dose, increased effects—and nobody has died or become violent.”

As Dr. Hart explains in his book, any violence related to crack cocaine is more closely linked to the drug trade. In 1988 in New York City, for example, only 2 percent of crack-related murders were committed by addicts looking to score.

Crack does not make users sleepless bags of bones, either. “People have this notion in their minds that folks who smoke crack are very skinny, but it’s actually a weak appetite suppressant,” Dr. Hart told AlterNet, “The kids on Adderall are getting more of an appetite suppressant than cocaine.”

Challenging the myth that crack causes users to go days without sleep, Dr. Hart said, “Certainly, when you smoke or take it, initially you’d be alert…But it’s one of the best drugs to take and party at night because you can actually go to sleep.”

Dr. Hart explained that the half-life for crack cocaine is less than an hour, whereas amphetamines and marijuana have half-lives up to twenty-four hours. “The pharmacological effects are short-lived, so notions about appetite suppression and decreased sleep for long periods of time is just not consistent with pharmacology.”

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...