History of crack
The 1970s saw an increased popularity in cocaine use. Although President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1972, overall American sentiment toward cocaine in the 1970s was rather indifferent. A 1977 Newsweek article reflected this feeling: “taken in moderation, cocaine probably causes no significant mental or physical damage and a number of researchers have concluded that it can be safer than liquor and cigarettes when used discriminately.” Many viewed the drug as the “marijuana of the 1970s” and relatively few felt that cocaine posed any real threat. Cocaine, an extremely expensive drug at the time, was often associated with ambitious young businessmen and glamorous celebrities, which helped to fuel its popularity, as well as propagate the notion that cocaine was a harmless and enjoyable drug.
Freebase cocaine, the purified form of powder cocaine, was also used throughout the 1970s, although it enjoyed much less popularity. As with powder cocaine, the users of freebase tended to be rich, middle class and white. Freebase was produced by “cooking” powder cocaine in a number of steps, one of which included ether, a highly combustible liquid. The resulting process was extremely pure, but never became particularly widespread due to the tricky process to make it and the danger of fire and explosion.
The simplicity of making crack was a major factor that led to crystallized cocaine becoming more widespread in the 1980s. Powder cocaine use declined in popularity in the middle class in the 1980s. Cocaine supply also increased, reducing the price. Crack provided an intense high very quickly for $5 or $10. For sellers, crack was a lucrative product – easy to make and desired by a huge consumer base for whom powder cocaine had previously been inaccessibly expensive. The association of crack with poor, urban areas where it was sold, and the violence connected with the rapid expansion of the crack market, changed the American perception of cocaine. From 1986 to 1992 there was an explosion of news coverage of crack and fear of an ‘epidemic’ of drug use in the ghettos.
Newsweek, almost ten years after it printed the article claiming cocaine was harmless, published a series of articles about the dangers and extremely addictive qualities of crack and cocaine. Myths of the ‘crack baby’ and the drug crazed, violent ‘crack head’ were born and, despite their limited foundation in reality, they endure as the image of crack users.
By the mid-1980s, Americans no longer tolerated cocaine as a benign, recreational drug. As a result, the Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, setting harsh punishments for those found trafficking in or possession of cocaine or crack. Many states followed suit, setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations, which vary in severity depending on the state. Although cocaine use has decreased since the 1980s, crack use is at about its late 1980s level (NSDUH). Popularly, use of the drug is still considered extremely dangerous and socially unacceptable.
(see: “Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice” by Craig Reinarman and Harry Gene Levine (Editors) University of California Press, 1997)
(for Newsweek articles and other information see: “Drugs in America: A Documentary History” edited by David F. Musto, M.D., New York University Press, 2002)