What the crack epidemic reveals about America

The story of America’s last half century is tangled up in the war on drugs. The myths it created are baked into our politics. The communities decimated by crack and tough on crime policing are still recovering. President Joe Biden’s largest legacy to date is arguably still his work on the crime bills of the ‘90s. Journalist Donovan X. Ramsey unravels this history and shows how crack and its consequences have touched all of us.

Ramsey himself grew up in a community impacted by crack — he saw his neighbor fall deep into addiction and be reduced by society into a “crackhead.” His reporting opened up old wounds, and he developed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in the five years he worked on the book.

“When Crack Was King” follows four central figures as they navigate the decades of the crack epidemic, interwoven with in-depth reporting on the policies and politics of the war on drugs, revealing a tragedy that was both systemic and deeply personal.

Lenny Woodley is a substance abuse counselor and recovered crack addict who started using when she was a young teen. Shawn McCray is a former crack dealer who came of age at a time when a kid from Newark could make more money selling drugs than from a college degree. Elgin Swift found himself selling crack after his dad got addicted and left him to fend for himself. Kurt Schmoke was the mayor of Baltimore during much of the epidemic, advocating for a public health approach when everyone else in power called for tougher policing.

I talked to Ramsey about lessons we can take from the systemic failures of the crack era — and how community care is at the center of preventing future drug epidemics.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alex LaSalvia: Can you describe the perfect storm of conditions that created the crack epidemic?

Donovan X. Ramsey: So, first you have, on the substance level, young people. I was able to discover a group of students in the Bay Area who were cocaine enthusiasts in the 70s, who experimented with that substance and came up with the formula for freebase cocaine. And that is a chemistry term for separating the base of the compound from its other elements, which is scientific and complex, but basically, it just makes cocaine smokeable, but also super accessible.

And so you have that innovation, you also have, at the same time, a glut of cocaine being shipped into the United States, trafficked from South and Central America. And that’s really going uninterrupted by the U.S. government, which was more focused on a war on drugs that targeted users and dealers at home.

But then I would also say that you had really tremendous disaffection across the country, especially in Black and Latino communities in big cities. There was a feeling of hopelessness and real despair about some of the failures of the civil rights movement, and not clear direction on where we would go next. So I think that it’s those things: It’s a lot of cocaine in the United States, the scientific innovation that created Freebase or crack cocaine, and then also this tremendous desire among people to check out to escape using the substance.

How did you decide to structure the book episodically around these core characters?

The structure of the book really is a reflection of how the story of the crack epidemic played out. You have the meta history of crack’s rise and fall from beginning to end, and then you also have the way that crack touched the lives of these individuals.

It was really important for me to go to history that was both official, but also personal. The four people that I ultimately included in the book, it was after a long process a year of traveling the country trying to find people who are representative of different experiences of the crack epidemic. So there is a former user, a former dealer, a former mayor, and the son of a user who became a dealer. It seemed to me that those four different experiences would create the most complete picture of how the crack epidemic came and went.

Lenny tells you she feels like decades of her life during her addiction are simply inaccessible to her now. Do you think this sense of lost time is true more broadly for communities who were impacted by the crack epidemic?

I think so. I think that one thing that we know about trauma is that it can affect the memory on the individual level. And I think that there are a lot of people who individually have lost years because of either the trauma of addiction, or the violence that accompanied the drug trade, or the policing violence that was a response to it.

But also, I think, on a social level, that a part of the reason why the crack epidemic is misunderstood is because we try not to think about it, that we haven’t done the work of turning memory into history. And that’s a part of what I hope this book does is that it takes these four people who are in many ways representative of different experiences within the crack epidemic, and it tries to turn their memories into a proper history. Otherwise that moment is lost and there’s no opportunity to learn from it.

Do you think the government and society learned lessons from the crack epidemic, especially in the more recent response to the opioid epidemic?

I think that the average person has more empathy for drug addicts. And I think that is a part of just increased understanding of addiction, and also the fact that the vast majority of the folks impacted by opioids today are White. Our country tends to humanize things once they’re in White bodies, and addiction is no different.

‘Now that Black and Latino men are leading in overdose deaths because of fentanyl, I am again concerned whether or not those feelings will harden, that people will go back to having less empathy for addicts.’

I don’t think that we are smarter as it relates to policy. I could point to something like the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, and although it was reduced from 100-to-1 — which was the original law under the Reagan administration, and it continued on until 2010, when Barack Obama reduced it to 18-to-1 — I would say the fact that there’s still a disparity in sentencing between these identical substances shows that we haven’t learned our lesson, that we are still holding on to some of that crack era mythology and fear that ultimately created that that policy.

Also I want to say that when I look around at the response to harm reduction policies as it relates to opioids and fentanyl in particular, that people are creating a level of panic and hysteria around fentanyl that is causing them to turn away from really smart harm reduction policies. And that’s a shame.

That the face of this more recent epidemic has been largely White and rural, although that is changing.

Yes, it is. And I think that makes me more concerned about what the future is of our drug policy, because there was some hope with the fact that fentanyl was impacting the “most valued Americans,” I should say. And now that Black and Latino men are leading in overdose deaths because of fentanyl, I am again concerned whether or not those feelings will harden, that people will go back to having less empathy for addicts, and if we then will turn back to those hard on drugs, those tough on crime policies.

How would you say the tough on crime policies and the war on drugs have distorted our views of how to actually make our communities safer?

I think back to my experience growing up in a neighborhood that was hard hit by crack — the so-called “high-crime neighborhood.” And I remember being a kid and being afraid of the violence, the random violence in my neighborhood. I remember being sad about the people that were clearly drug addicted, and being afraid of having our house broken into, but I was also afraid of the police. And all of those things were traumatizing forces in my growing up.

I think that the system that we have now, this incredibly broken system of policing in particular, is a result of the crack epidemic. Policies like stop and frisk are about finding drugs or guns on people’s bodies. Broken windows policing, this idea that you can interrupt small crimes as a way of ultimately stopping bigger crimes, the bigger crimes that they’re ultimately afraid of were ones related to the drug trade.

Our criminal justice system ballooned during that period, because we created policies like mandatory minimum sentences, that not only put people in jail, but kept people in jail for really long periods of time. So, we as a nation decided that our best option was to warehouse people during the crack epidemic. Instead of trying to eliminate the causes of the crack epidemic, we said, let’s just lock people up for as long as possible. And the fact that the crack epidemic ended, not because of that, but because of the choices that individuals made, I think gives people the wrong idea that it worked.

Could you go into what you found to be the real reasons that the crack epidemic ended?

The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics did a lot of studies in the early 90s to actually look at why the crack epidemic ended. And what they concluded was that it was simply the choices made by the next cohort of young people, people 18 to 25, who would be experimenting with drugs decided not to pick up not only crack, but no hard drugs. Rates of hard drug use for Black and Latino youth completely plummeted in the early 90s. And it was because of the devastation that they saw firsthand.

So I want to underline that we have Black and Latino people to thank for ending the crack epidemic in our big cities. And we didn’t celebrate that. And we didn’t applaud that in the same way that those folks were demonized. What that goes to show is that these things are trends, that they come and that they go, and that they come because of all the factors that we’ve discussed, the social conditions that make them popular for a time. And I think what that suggests to me is that harm reduction is so important, because our goal should be to keep people alive, to keep communities safe long enough for the storm to pass.

Some people are adamant that the crack epidemic was orchestrated by the U.S. government to disrupt communities of color. Others call that a conspiracy theory. What did you find? Was the U.S. at least complicit in the spread of drugs?

So, I want to point out that I did not find the smoking gun, and I looked very hard for it. When you are talking about this kind of thing, it’s important to make distinctions because it is a big thing to accuse the U.S. government of intentionally creating the crack epidemic. I didn’t find any evidence of that.

But what I did find evidence of was federal agencies — the CIA, the FBI — that turn their head the other way again, and again, when there was evidence that there were large amounts of cocaine being trafficked into the United States by groups that we were friendly with, namely, the Contras — the Nicaraguan rebels that were attempting to overthrow the government there. That is something that we supported, that we were not able to support with funding, because Congress would not allow that.

So it seems as though we allowed them to fundraise by trafficking cocaine into the United States. These were actions again that were known to those three letter agencies like the FBI, the CIA, and that were interrupted. And I think that I don’t have to characterize that. I think that most people can look at a situation like that and draw their own conclusions.

It is remarkable to see the U.S. government turning a blind eye to trafficking of cocaine into the United States at the same time that it is criminalizing use of cocaine in the United States and to really drastic consequences for communities of color.

You mentioned at the end of your book this fear that you got after writing this book that the next drug epidemic could be right around the corner at any time. Where does that fear come from?

After reporting the book, and getting an idea of the factors that facilitated the crack epidemic, it was clear to me that we had not done enough as a nation to shore up the social forces — the poverty, the terrible housing, the political disenfranchisement — that make people feel hopeless. That is something that continues to exist in communities all across the country today.

‘Our idea is that we want people to just stop, but I think that we have to think hard about how we can keep people alive long enough for them to stop.’

I was also very disappointed that our response hadn’t gotten better, that we did not, as a result of the crack epidemic, create healthier systems for dealing with people who have addiction. That today, for example, if you saw somebody standing on the street, who was leaning, and completely out of it, because they were high on maybe an opioid, who could you call, besides the police? For me, it’s a shame that we went through that big devastating time, and that our options are still the same.

And I’ve had that experience. When I started writing this book, I was living in Brooklyn, and I had a neighbor, a man that lived on the street, who was clearly high, and having a moment on the street. And I called 911, I called 311, 311 told me to call back to 911, and I didn’t want to criminalize that man, but there was nothing that I could do. There was nothing in place, at least on a social level, that I could do.

What that meant was I had to leverage community care, the thing that actually saved us and kept us alive, and it meant just going over to him and saying, sir, are you okay, have a seat, let me get you some water. You know, trying to actually care for him on an individual level. But on a social level, we haven’t gotten any better at that.

What can we do now to shore up that community care to make our communities more resilient to new threats of drug epidemics?

I want to see more investment in community organizations that are actually doing the work, that people trust and look to, that are embedded within communities and know the people who need help. That is churches, it’s activist organizations, it’s hospitals, often individual hospital systems that help people into recovery. All of that is super important that we look at who’s already doing it, and that’s where we put our resources.

I would also like to see more investment in harm reduction programs around the country that do things like distribute Narcan, the life saving drug that interrupts overdose. Fentanyl test strips, you know, a lot of the fentanyl that is causing overdoses actually laced. Other drugs are laced with fentanyl because it’s super cheap, and it’s a way of taking something like powder cocaine and stretching it, to put a little bit of fentanyl in there. People should be testing drugs.

I want to see distribution of clean syringes that keep people from contracting diseases like HIV AIDS, while they’re doing intravenous drug use. This is not something that we’d like to talk about in this country, that people are going to do drugs. Our idea is that we want people to just stop, but I think that we have to think hard about how we can keep people alive long enough for them to stop.

Harm reduction programs should go hand-in-hand with recovery programs that our hospital systems should be funded for, and trained to see patterns of drug abuse and actually be able to disrupt them, and to funnel people into treatment. Those two things together create a system where you keep people alive long enough for them to get treatment, and then you give them treatment. And if they relapse, and they go back into drug use or drug abuse, that you can keep them alive long enough for them to get treatment. It’s a cycle that has to be interrupted, and we just haven’t created the space to interrupt it.

There are people who want to decriminalize drugs, and I think hard about that, because I am so afraid of a potential increase in overdose deaths, if drugs are readily available. I think that that is a big goal that we can work towards once those other policies are in place.

Donovan X. Ramsey’s book, “When Crack Was King,” is available now wherever books are sold.

Alex LaSalvia is the Digital Producer for The Emancipator. He can be reached at alexla@bu.edu.

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