Cocaine’s cheaper smokable version of crack cocaine left an even larger indelible mark on America’s inner cities like no other drug has.

Crack cocaine is essentially the heated oil-free-base form of cocaine (which can also be smoked) converted back into crystals with the aid of adulterants like baking soda, which is then smoked in small chunks. Since it is mixed in with additives like baking soda, a little crack cocaine rock costing no more than a few dollars produces an intense high that lasts about 15 minutes, inducing users to repeat the process, usually until their money runs out.

Crack first appeared in U.S. inner cities in 1985 as a cheaper way of getting the same high as freebase cocaine, but it grew in popularity due to two other factors. By the mid-1980s, there was an oversupply of cocaine, resulting in a rapid price decline. Secondly, the preferred drug of choice in inner cities, marijuana, became more expensive as the DEA’s efforts to curtail supply, particularly of sinsemilla, were bearing fruit. An accessible and cheap form of cocaine, contrasting with an increasingly more expensive marijuana, became too much of a temptation for many in poor American inner cities, especially young minorities.

By 1987, one survey showed that 5.6% of American high school seniors had tried crack. Although national surveys showed relatively low use, in cities in Miami where crack was introduced in the early 1980s, another survey from the same time showed that the majority of Miami high school seniors had tried the drug. Unfortunately, the efforts by the media to cover the story of what would be known as the crack epidemic seemed more effective in spreading its use than containing it. Such evidence should provide caution against anyone advocating simple educational programs like DARE as the primary tool to curb drug use, especially as heroin addiction continues to rise. Instead, society must address the root causes of what drives teens to turn to drugs in the first place while greater measures are taken to stem the flow of drugs from coming into the country.

Additionally, the deindustrialization of the 1980s exacerbated crack’s spread to America’s inners cities, creating unemployment and amplifying the violence created by the crack epidemic itself. To contain the growing violence generated by crack use and dealing, Congress passed a series of tough anti-drug laws, the most notable being the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which mandated a five-year minimum without parole for possession of 5 grams of crack and 500 grams for powder cocaine. This disparity of 100:1 adversely affected African Americans—who were most likely to use crack than powder cocaine— leaving a lasting impact even as the crack epidemic began to ebb in the early 90s. Decades later, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would reduce this disparity to 18:1 and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for crack cocaine possession.

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Posted by Anaïs Faure