Cracked up

How did a drug whose addictive properties were once compared to potato chips become the scourge of America?

Published May 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The media now says crack is dead. But can we believe it? After all, the media got the crack story wrong from the beginning, and reporting on the drug is not necessarily more reliable today.

When reporters discovered crack in the mid-1980s, coverage of the "epidemic" soon eclipsed all other stories from inner-city America. Newsweek called crack the most significant story since Vietnam and Watergate; Time labeled it the "issue of the year" in 1986. In the period from October 1988 through October 1989, the Washington Post alone ran 1,565 crack stories. Suddenly this new form of cocaine, a drug whose addictive properties were compared to potato chips by Scientific American in 1983, was, according to Newsweek, "the most addictive drug known to man." U.S. News and World Report called the crack problem "a situation experts compare to medieval plagues" and "the number one problem we face."

But even at its height, the drug that President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan said was killing "a whole generation of children" was never sampled by many people outside the world of adults who were already heavy drug users. There never was a new generation caught in the web of a brand new drug.

In fact, illicit drug use had reached its peak in 1979 to 1981 and then begun falling before the crack hysteria began. Crack-use rates also began to decline -- almost as soon as they could be measured. As early as 1986, survey data showed that more than three out of four people who tried the drug that newspapers and television shows had said caused "instant addiction" never used it again.

Though the crack threat to the nation was oversold, the trade in the drug and the chaos it caused certainly did severely damage communities where it was sold on the streets. Crime rose dramatically and the suffering of families whose members became involved in using and selling was profound. At its peak, the number of young arrestees who tested positive for crack use reached 70 percent in New York City, and the murder rate in the city doubled between 1985 and 1990, driven largely by turf wars among crack dealers.

By 1991, however, a few reporters and survey researchers began to notice that the media-fed fears that crack and crime would rise forever were unwarranted. In 1993 and 1994, the Washington Post ran two major stories detailing what has come to be called the "younger sibling" effect: Kids who saw their older siblings and parents get in trouble with crack use and sales didn't want to try it themselves. Rappers began to glorify reefer and "chillin'" rather than dealing and the "gangsta" life.

By the early '90s, many crackheads of the '80s had simply aged out. Meanwhile, researchers discovered that crack babies weren't doomed -- in fact, fetal alcohol syndrome does far more lasting damage. And younger siblings of the crack generation, chastened by the family destruction wrought by the drug, turned the word "crackhead" into a devastating insult. They certainly didn't aspire to smoke or sell it. In many cities, falling teen birth rates and infant mortality rates are seen as evidence of the end of the crack epidemic.

Crack "epidemic" stories disappeared almost as suddenly as they had appeared. In 1989, 64 percent of the public had said that drugs were the most serious problem facing the nation. But by 1990, when media focus shifted to the economic problems and layoffs related to a major recession, only 10 percent found drugs to be the No. 1 problem.

The next time we heard about crack it was in the context of police officers and politicians taking credit for having solved the crime problem with their "zero tolerance" on low-level offenders and tougher sentences. The media bought it for the most part, particularly in New York, giving Mayor Rudy Giuliani the lion's share of the political credit for crack and crime reduction.

The problem is, once again, this analysis does not tell the whole story. Crime dropped almost as much in cities where there were no police changes (like Washington) as it did in Mayor Giuliani's New York. New Haven, Conn., and later Boston police took a "kinder, gentler" tack than Giuliani's force did -- and saw the same results. And New York had adopted uncommonly harsh narcotics laws 10 years before crack. If these were effective, the city should have been less affected by the drug's rise, rather than being the epicenter of the crack and crime wave. Says James Alan Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University, "Probably the most important factor [in the drop in crime] was the change in drug markets" -- that is, dealers no longer needed to fight over turf for selling the new product, because the boundary lines were now established.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees with Fox. "There are four major factors in the drop in crime," he says. "No. 1 has been getting guns out of the hands of kids, No. 2 has been the shrinking of the crack markets and their institutionalization. Third is the robustness of the economy. There are jobs for kids now who might otherwise be attracted to dealing." In last place, Blumstein says, is the criminal justice response, or as he puts it, "incapacitation related to the growth of incarceration."

Blumstein believes the connection between crack markets and the popularity of guns among youth drove the crime epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s. "All of the growth in homicide between 1985 and '91 was among young men with handguns," says Blumstein. "The homicide rate in that group doubled -- while it fell 20 percent among people over 30 ... Regular kids started getting guns and using them, partially for protection, partially because it was trendy. It diffused out from the nuclei of dealers and worked its way into the broader community." Just as beepers started out as icons of drug-dealing cool and spread to other teens, so did guns, with far worse results.

Why did the media get it so wrong? Why did nearly every single news organization overplay crack's threat and rise -- and underplay its fall? Why didn't reporters realize that a drug like crack was unlikely to ever spread far beyond its ghetto roots?

Sociologist Craig Reinarman, author of "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice," notes that the crack scare was useful to politicians, police and the media. "At a minimum, the media accelerated its spread," he says. "When crack first appeared, it was after a good long gestation period of widespread use of freebase cocaine [crack is just another name for this drug, marketed ready-made]. Within a few months of crack's appearance in L.A., New York and Miami, there were hundreds of hours of network news coverage, and by the end of the first six months, there wasn't a 14-year-old in Iowa who didn't know what it was."

"There is no major corporation which could have afforded the coverage and exposure that crack got for free," he adds. You might say it was a very successful product launch. And the first network special devoted to it, CBS News' "48 Hours on Crack Street," got the best ratings of any news show in the previous five years.

Reinarman describes the crack mania as an old-fashioned "moral panic," of the sort that led to alcohol prohibition earlier in the century. In the years before alcohol was banned, reporters credulously accepted claims that prohibition could end poverty and domestic violence. Coverage focused on extreme examples of drunks who committed crimes and implied that this could happen to anyone who imbibed. Alcohol was also linked with scorned minorities -- mainly the Irish and Germans at the time, although the Women's Christian Temperance Union hailed sobriety as "the white life," and linked drunkenness with African-Americans as well. The media and prohibitionists eventually spoke almost as one.

When it came to crack, the media escalated the panic and propelled a political arms race, in which Democrats and Republicans fought to outdo each other as anti-drug crusaders. The result was sentences for dealers and users that are longer than for rapists and even killers.

In the end, crack did prove to be a long-term disaster for the inner city -- not because of unending violence, but because of the resulting criminalization of young black men. Now almost a third of black men are in prison or on parole, and many cities are coping with the political ramifications of having large numbers of black men ineligible to vote because of felony convictions. The war on crack may prove to be the true shame of the cities, especially for African-Americans -- much more devastating than crack itself.

By Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz is the author of the forthcoming book "Tough Love America: How the 'Troubled Teen' Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids" (Riverhead, 2005). She has also written for the New York Times, Elle, Redbook and other publications.

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