Crack cocaine, commonly shortened to crack, is a free base version of cocaine – a drug that has been used in various forms in South America for centuries. Crack cocaine was first introduced to the United States in the early 1980s, going on to become an epidemic with millions of users and contributing to over 25,000 hospitalizations a year throughout the 80s and early 90s. Today, crack is less of a problem, but it still exists, and is just as dangerous today as it was then.
This complete history of crack cocaine will help you to understand what the drug is, where it comes from, and why it is still engrained in some urban neighborhoods.
What is Crack Cocaine
Cocaine is made from the leaves of the Coca plant, which has been used as a stimulant and recreational drug in Peru since ancient times. The drug was first isolated to create cocaine during the 1860s, and, at first believed to be harmless, was sold as a common household product, and was not regulated until the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act and not banned until 1922. By 1961, the United States had recognized that cocaine was a serious problem, causing hospitalizations and deaths across the country, but usage continued to rise.
The 1970s cocaine epidemic gave rise to increased production throughout South America, leading to a massive influx of product and falling prices. Faced with the prospect of losing money, drug dealers began converting cocaine powder into crack cocaine, a crystalized and much more potent version of the drug. This free-base cocaine provides a shorter but more intense high than the original cocaine powder, and during the height of the crack cocaine ‘epidemic’ could be purchased for as little as about $2.50 per gram (about $6 adjusted for inflation).
This stronger cocaine is made by purifying powder through a chemical process. It can then be sold in smaller quantities, and can be smoked.
A Manufactured Epidemic
While cocaine use was rampant throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, most data shows that crack was not popularized until media outlets reported on it. Jumping on the opportunity to create a scare and therefore views, major news channels manufactured information about an epidemic, effectively mass-marketing a newer, stronger, and far more dangerous form of an already potent drug.
The result was an epidemic, with usage rapidly spreading across the United States. By 1984 an estimated 4.5-5.5 million Americans were regularly using crack – many of whom were poor and underprivileged teens and young persons in urban areas. Cocaine, which was an expensive commodity, was unavailable to this demographic, but crack, which was available in smaller and stronger quantities, was cheap and easy to get.
By 1986 the cocaine related emergency room visits rose by 110% to 55,200. Just a year later, that number would almost double again, rising to 94,000.
A Disproportionate Impact on Poverty Stricken Neighborhoods
Crack cocaine massively impacted urban communities, quickly hitting and decimating poverty-stricken areas. During the peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic, the drug was primarily distributed in inner-city neighborhoods, where dealers could easily sell quickly at a minimum price. This resulted in heavy distribution to families and households already vulnerable to addiction through stress and poverty and in turn generated a more than doubled homicide rate among impoverished black males aged 14-24, and a significantly increased crime rate.
Often addicted, many users would turn to selling, further spreading crack into their communities and increasing violence and local poverty further. With an economic recession, poor prospects, and crack cocaine presented as an ‘easy’ way to make money – the drug became entrenched in poor neighborhoods, becoming influential in pop culture and dramatically affecting gang violence in black and Latino neighborhoods.
By 1986, the U.S. government had recognized the immense danger and impact of crack cocaine. Congress responded, passing a 100:1 sentencing disparity versus powder cocaine, with a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine. By the early 1990s, the police had become more militarized, and had begun unfairly arresting blacks for crack possession (79% of all persons prosecuted for possession of crack were black versus data showing 75% + users were white).
By the mid 1990s the crack epidemic eased off, but crack remained and is still sold today, often at a quarter or less of the price of cocaine.
Crack Side Effects
Crack cocaine causes numerous negative side-effects, all of which can dramatically harm the users mental and physical health. The most common are overdose and harm to the lungs from smoking, resulting in crack lung, and over 25,000 emergency room visits each year.
Crack Lung – Crack lung is the colloquial term for the respiratory difficulties caused by smoking crack. Users can have difficulty breathing, may develop pneumonia, may develop hemorrhaging, and may develop a pulmonary edema. This can be fatal.
Adulterants – Most crack cocaine is adulterated to increase the weight of the drug and therefore the dealer’s profits. Some adulterants are relatively harmless such as milk powder and sugar others can be fatal over time, including caffeine, lidocaine, paracetamol, amphetamine, and strychnine.
Burns – Crack cocaine smoke must be inhaled rapidly to prevent it losing potency, necessitating a very short pipe. Most use short glass pipes, which get very hot and that can burn the hands and lips.
Paranoia and Anxiety – Over time, most crack users develop paranoia and anxiety, which can extend to delusional. Very heavy and frequent users eventually develop delusional parasitosis, where they experience the feeling of bugs or insects crawling under the skin. This delusion and paranoia can lead to dangerous and erratic behavior. This is exacerbated by the fact that crack cocaine can keep users awake for days at a time, increasing natural paranoia and anxiety.
Substance Dependence – Crack is a stronger and more potent form of cocaine and is therefore more often abused than other forms of the drug. While sociologists argue as to whether this is because crack is more addictive or because those prone to addiction or those who are dependent are drawn to the stronger version, many crack cocaine users suffer from addiction. Crack cocaine addiction is often characterized by very heavy use, paranoia and anxiety, health problems or consistent flu symptoms, tremors, vertigo, muscle twitches, and bizarre behavior.
Overdose – Crack cocaine is extremely strong but short-lasting. The desired effects can last as little as 15 minutes, leading many users to take hit after hit, which can lead to progressively lower highs and increased usage. This can result in a binge or consuming much more crack cocaine than is safe. At a dose of several hundred mg of pure crack cocaine, users will go into a toxic reaction resembling amphetamine poisoning, which can be fatal. Bizarre and extremely erratic behavior are the norm in this situation, as some people experience psychotic breakdowns and experience auditory and visual hallucinations. This can be extremely dangerous, especially in urban environments, where users may accidentally put themselves in harm’s way.
If you or a loved one is using crack cocaine, there is help. A substance abuse is a treatable disorder and a treatment center can give you the help you need to move past the physical dependence with medically supported detox as well as medical and psychological care to repair the damage done to you by substance abuse. A crack cocaine addiction treatment program includes personalized care with behavioral therapy, stress management, and group therapy to help you move past the underlying causes of addiction, learn to cope with and handle cravings and triggers, and develop the skills you need to live a happy and drug free life.
Please contact Lighthouse Treatment Center today for more information. We are to help and happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors.