The Crack Epidemic


As extreme as some cocaine-induced behaviors can be, they are relatively mild when compared with the behavior induced by crack, a derivative of cocaine. In 1985, when the price of cocaine had soared to $150 a gram, plastic vials containing what looked like tiny soap chips began selling on the streets of low-income neighborhoods for $5 to $10 a “rock.” Crack cocaine had arrived on America’s streets and, unlike pricey cocaine, just about anyone who wanted crack could afford it.

The active ingredient of crack is cocaine. Working in illicit “kitchens,” individuals manufacture crack by adding ammonia or sodium bicarbonate and water to pure cocaine, drying the mixture, and then crumbling the residue into small rocks. Adulterated this way, a gram of cocaine makes enough crack to satisfy many users.

Though it is made from a relatively small amount of powdered cocaine, crack is extremely potent. Because crack is smoked, the active chemicals reach the brain in seconds compared to the ten to fifteen minutes powdered cocaine requires. Crack’s almost instantaneous delivery to the brain provides a more highly concentrated impact than does snorted cocaine, which loses potency as it travels through the bloodstream.

Suddenly, cocaine was no longer just for the well-to-do. Dealers sold crack in packets of two to five rocks, meaning that even someone earning the minimum wage could afford to get high.

The synthesizing of crack from cocaine boosted the sale of both forms of the drug and dramatically increased the number of users. Crack dealers quickly moved their operations into low-income neighborhoods. Just as cocaine had been labeled the drug of the wealthy, crack was labeled the drug of choice of the inner city or ghetto.

With the availability of this potent, inexpensive form of cocaine, millions of low-income workers and adolescents began trying the drug. What they quickly — and unexpectedly — learned was that the intensity of the crack rush brought with it greater risk of addiction than did cocaine. By the end of the 1980s, crack use and the problems it caused reached epidemic levels.

As the use of crack spread, epidemiologists recognized that crack was rapidly becoming a serious threat primarily to the poor who lacked the educational and financial resources to cope with the destructive effects of the drug. Not only were the nation’s poor ill-equipped to deal with crack’s effects, but the very attributes that made crack affordable to the poor guaranteed that it would exacerbate other problems that already made life in the nation’s inner cities a daily struggle.

Cocaine Versus Crack

Although crack is derived from cocaine and is classified by federal and state law enforcement agencies as a form of cocaine, each form of the drug works differently in the body. Unlike cocaine, crack affects the user within seconds; similarly, its effects wear off more quickly, lasting only between five and ten minutes. Unfortunately for crack users, the intense rush is so pleasurable that users want more as soon as the effects wear off, and addiction is more likely. Moreover, since the euphoria wears off much faster than it does with cocaine, users must smoke many times a day to keep the inevitable depression at bay. Drug researcher Elisabeth Ryan describes the differences between inhaling powdered cocaine and smoking crack this way:

It may take several minutes to feel the effects of snorting coke, and the “high” lasts for about 20 minutes to a half hour. Crack, on the other hand, is felt within a few seconds, and the short but very intense high lasts only for five or ten minutes, followed by a very intense crash. Cocaine is psychologically and physically addictive to many people, but it usually takes from two to five years for the addiction to develop. Crack, because it operates so quickly, is also very quickly addictive. Almost without exception, users become addicted within the first few uses, sometimes from the very first use.

The Inner-City Dilemma

Youth and the Web of Crime

Neighborhood youths are often more likely to be drawn into the web of crack-related crime than are older residents. Criminologists have found that those who control the crack trade intentionally recruit teenagers as young as thirteen who have criminal records to serve as street dealers because they tend to be easily intimidated and are often more willing to commit crimes than teens without criminal backgrounds.

The correlation between crack and crime against other members of society is well documented. Whenever police arrest people for serious crimes, suspects are tested for the presence of illegal drugs in their systems. In 1999, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) compiled statistics on the results of drug tests on men arrested in major cities. They found an alarmingly high proportion — 39.9 percent of suspects — tested positive, suggesting that many crimes are committed in order to support drug habits.

The increased level of violence among criminals due to crack changed entire neighborhoods. As crack-related violence rose, law-abiding citizens, fearing for their lives, converted their homes and apartments into fortresses. They bolted steel bars over street-level windows and many bought handguns for self-protection. Even though most of these neighborhoods already had a history of crime, few had experienced such a high level of violent crime in the past.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Dysfunctional Families

Crack-Related Illnesses

A Particular Problem for Women and Children

In assessing health problems associated with crack, public health officials paint a bleaker picture for women than for men. NIDA maintains that crack can interfere with judgment and therefore lead to risky sexual behavior. Women addicts are particularly at risk because they are often forced to resort to prostitution to pay for their drugs. It is not unusual for female crack addicts to spend their entire day in crack houses trading sex for crack perhaps a dozen times. Even women who manage to avoid turning to prostitution are still at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases because rape is a common occurrence in crack houses.

Of even greater concern to society has been the fate of children born to crack-addicted women. Although initial fears among health professionals that such children would suffer severe and permanent brain damage have since proved unfounded, so-called crack babies do face some risks.

Perhaps the greatest of these risks is exposure to HIV/AIDS, which can be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby, either before or during childbirth or later through breast-feeding. Timely treatment of a pregnant HIV-positive patient with potent drugs like AZT or protease inhibitors can prevent this kind of transmission in many cases, but the same factors that keep crack addicts from seeking help — poverty and fear of the police — often keep the pregnant crack addict from getting the care that could prevent the infection of her baby with the deadly virus.

The many tragedies of crack use are dark realities of the crack and cocaine industry. The thousands of tragic stories surrounding cocaine and crack are not just the actions of addicts, but also the result of the actions of myriad people throughout the Western Hemisphere who make up a far-flung cocaine partnership.

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