Crack fails to make a comeback

Freebase form of cocaine remains on the streets, but much less so than three decades ago

The chorus of hip-hop song “CoCo,” which rose to the top of the pop charts over the winter, captures a rap artist’s love for making and selling crack cocaine: “Baking soda, I got baking soda / Whip it through the glass / I'm blowing money fast.”

While the latest musical glorification of the drug may be popular coast to coast, the drug is clearly not as widespread as it was. Though some rappers like 50 Cent and Jay-Z credit the substance for initially building their fortunes, its role had already diminished by the time Whitney Houston famously said in 2002, “Crack is whack.” 

Fears over crack addiction in the U.S. have waned as substance abusers increasingly seek treatment for heroin and crystal meth, as well as problems with marijuana and prescription drugs.

“Overall, crack cocaine use is relatively low nationally," said Samuel Schumach, spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. "We have seen a decrease in the use of crack cocaine," in terms of people who have used the drug during the past year.

"Additionally, in 2013, the ‘past year dependence’ of cocaine — crack and powder — was half of what it was in the decade prior: 0.3 percent of the population in 2013, compared to 0.6 percent in 2002."

Just 1 in 29 Americans have tried crack, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The age group with the highest percentage of users in 2013 was 50-54 years old. For 12th graders, the annual prevalence is around 1 percent, having declined from a peak of about 4 percent in 1987. Overall, 58,000 people tried crack for their first time during the most recent year the survey was taken.

“Most crack cocaine consumers are white,” Daniel Robelo of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance told Al Jazeera. “However, most people arrested, charged and incarcerated for crack cocaine use are black and Latino. Eighty-two percent of people [federally] sentenced in 2012 for crack cocaine were black.” Of those who used the drug in the last 30 days, 28 percent were African-American.

Crack use and sentencing, by race (2012)
Race/EthnicityCrack use in lifetime% of users% of offenders% of US population
White 5,777,000 69.4% 6.7% 62.6%
Black 1,407,000 17.9% 82.6% 13.2%
Latino/Hispanic 828,000 9.9% 9.7% 17.1%
Other 317,000 3.8% 1.0% 9.1%
Source: US Census, SAMHSA, US Sentencing Commission

Census data is from 2013.

Base. Rock. Sugar Block. These are among the nicknames for crack cocaine, the potent crystalline form of the addictive drug that makes a popping sound when smoked.

Most cocaine originates in Peru and Bolivia, is processed in Colombia, and passes through Mexico en route to the United States before being turned into crack closer to its destination.

Crack consumption first became widespread in poor inner-city areas of Los Angeles before reaching East Coast cities such as New York and Philadelphia as the epidemic reached its peak in the late 1980’s.

“Dark Alliance,” a 1996 investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, chronicled the drug's proliferation in Los Angeles. The series detailed the connections between Nicaraguan anti-communist Contra fighters, the Central Intelligence Agency and crack dealers in South Central Los Angeles in the 80s. Under intense media scrutiny, Webb’s editors retracted many of the series’ claims, and the journalist committed suicide in 2004. The story is chronicled in the films “Killing the Messenger” and “Freeway: Crack in the System,” which details the role of crack kingpin Rick Ross.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, around 9 million Americans have tried crack in their lifetime, with 632,000 consuming the drug during the last year and 377,000 smoking in the last month. Around two-thirds of crack users are male.

A disproportionate amount of crack users are black, low-income, and less educated. But contrary to stereotypes, crack is not inherently a more dangerous drug than its powder equivalent.

Race and sentencing disparity

The criminal sentencing discrepancy between crack and cocaine offenders is stark: punishment for possessing 28 grams of crack is equivalent to that for 500 grams of cocaine. But this figure represents an improvement over the 100-to-1 ratio that prevailed until the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, when mandatory minimum rules imposed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 were rolled back.

“Over-incarceration has exploded as a result of the war on drugs,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), at an event Thursday marking Black History Month. “Arrest rates have a disparate impact on people of color….and three-quarters of those in prison for drug offenses are minorities.”

The impact of the epidemic on poor largely African-American communities has been devastating, with crack associated with a dramatic increase in violent crime. Gangs in the 80s and 90s fought over drug turf, driving homicide rates sky high and sending hundreds of thousands to jail. A 1993 report to Congress by the federal Sentencing Commission, issued just after the largely crack-driven crime waved peaked, stated that almost 9 out of 10 crack convicts were black.

Many of those currently serving lengthy prison terms doled out before the laws changed have benefited from an initiative to extend presidential clemency. The Obama administration has prioritized a long-term shift in federal sentencing priorities. But the Smarter Sentencing Act, which died in the last session of Congress, would further reduce the U.S. prison population by slashing the number incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

Over-incarceration has exploded as a result of the war on drugs. Arrest rates have a disparate impact on people of color….and three-quarters of those in prison for drug offenses are minorities.

Cory Booker

U.S. Senator (D-N.J.)

Recent research shows that poverty – rather than chemical addiction – causes much of the societal damage previously thought due directly to crack use. Carl Hart, author of “High Price,” says that crack is symptomatic of larger ills, but that users often remain rational in their pursuit of intoxication. The crack trade, rather than the drug itself, seems to have caused most of the violence during the “crack epidemic.” Moreover, Hart, the Drug Policy Alliance and others argue that the drug is not as addictive as believed, with many users trying the drug just once or sporadically.

Listed as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act, crack is technically considered the same as cocaine. Total supply and consumption are hard to measure for this reason. Regardless, over time, crack use, and its price, has tracked with powder cocaine. A 2006 University of Chicago study argued that gang violence over crack markets peaked when profits were high.

A Lancet study in the United Kingdom caused an uproar in 2010 after stating that crack was less dangerous than alcohol. But many experts criticized the report’s methodology. The report reasoned that crack is worse than alcohol when it comes to dependence, impairment and mortality, yet not necessarily when it comes to users causing harm to others.

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