When Crack Was King - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Crack Was King

When Crack Was King

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because we’ve met the enemy and that enemy is us. A very, very high us.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Crime, like fashion, works in waves. Kids shoot up schools, much is made about kids shooting up schools and then more kids shoot up schools. In her recent memoir, Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, wrote as much after discovering that her son and his accomplice, Eric Harris, had fan clubs made up of kids who went on to shoot up schools. Drugs — crime’s frequent handmaiden — make a similar circuit. 

“It was like a plague,” says retired undercover gang-detail cop Eddie Williams. Within a short period of time, he says, “everything changed, and changed for the worse.… They were killing, dying and [committing] dozens of other crimes on their way out.” The catalyst for this kind of crazy? Crack cocaine, an almost accidental tourist of the drug trade. Far from the high-class decadence that had previously marked cocaine’s cult in the U.S., the totally screwed-up economics of its popular upmarket cousin almost single-handedly created crack.

It’s like five minutes of crazy. Why bother?

Jam J, dealer

Which is to say the popularity of cocaine created a glut, the glut crashed the price and suppliers were left with excess supply but only so many celebrities, nightclub habitués and rock stars to sell it to. Enter the unsung chemist who figured out that with some sodium bicarbonate, ammonium bicarbonate and ammonium carbonate, along with a stove to cook it on, a Schedule 1 drug cheap enough for nearly anyone to buy could be created. Or, cheap enough that just about anything you could steal and sell would be enough to come up with the $5 needed for a high that hit your head in about eight seconds. 

“They say it’s not physiologically addictive,” said Josefine Nauckhoff, a Stanford grad and former Nietzsche scholar and professor who lost it all to crack. “But based on my experience, I would call bullshit on that.” Nauckhoff’s not-uncommon trajectory ultimately had her prostituting herself, not for cash but for crack. A scene that might have been relatively isolated if not for the other elements of the perfect storm. Media claims that the drug’s use was epidemic may have created an epidemic. More damning? San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb’s claims that the CIA had at the very least ignored South American drug trafficking, and at the very worst aided and abetted it to funnel money to friendly elements in what became the Iran-Contra imbroglio. 

“The Reagan administration copped to it in 1986,” Williams says, referencing a report released, in a stunning moment of candor, by the administration that admitted that funds from cocaine smuggling helped fund the Contra rebels. But no matter where the blame fell, the 1980s belonged to no drug as much as it belonged to crack. Between 1985 and 1986, crack-related hospital emergencies rose 110 percent, up to 55,200, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. By the end of 1987, these figures hit 94,000 nationwide. The homicide rate for Black males doubled, along with fetal death rates and low-weight babies; according to Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer, they were accompanied by weapons arrests and other clear markers that chaos was ruling the day. 

Crack’s jagged high and its propensity for creating arenas for all kinds of outré behaviors have fueled music, movies and collapsed communities in all but four American states, according to the Department of Justice. “We tried to sell crack here,” says Jam J, an Amsterdam drug dealer. “Tried to give it away, but only Americans, and maybe Brits, seemed to want that kind of high.” He shudders, his fingers dancing in the air in front of him. “It’s like five minutes of crazy. Why bother?”

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