Crack Cocaine

How destructive is crack cocaine?

News sources and government agencies in the 1980's and 1990's depicted crack cocaine as “the most dangerous and quickly addictive drug known to man.” In 1988, a reporter from the New York Times quoted an Ivy League medical school professor claiming that most of those who tried crack would be “addicted in six months to a year.” Two years later, a Times columnist, Anna Quindlen, described crack as “a stimulant so powerful that it makes people forget everything they once loved or lived for.” Today, some anti-drug campaigns and educational materials make similar claims: Foundation for a Drug-Free World, which provides anti-drug pamphlets to US public schools (and which claims to have distributed over 50 million such pamphlets worldwide) includes one testimonial asserting that “one pipe [of crack] can be all it takes to turn you into an immoral monster.”

But these claims about crack are almost wholly false. In reality:

Most people who Try crack never become addicted.

  • While crack cocaine is addictive, it is nowhere near as instantly or universally habit-forming as many popular narratives insist. An analysis of 2012 data from the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that while 654,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 reported that they had used crack cocaine at some point in their lives, only 38,000 reported using it in the month prior to the survey. That suggests that fewer than 6% of young people who tried crack became regular users, much less single-minded “crack fiends.”

Most of the violence associated with crack comes from the illegal market and gang activity, not the effects of the drug itself.

  • Crack cocaine can cause paranoia, which can incline people to acts of violence, and drug withdrawal can also make dependent crack users irritable and angry. But as columnist Jacob Sullum put it, “the vast majority of violence attributed to crack grew out of black-market disputes, as opposed to the drug’s pharmacological effects.” A study by researcher Paul Goldstein found that among drug-related homicides in New York City in 1988, 74% were a result of “systemic” violence, such as violence arising from commercial disputes, fights over turf, or drug sales. Only 15% of all the drug-related homicides stemmed from the physical effects of intoxicants (with over two thirds caused by alcohol), and of those, only a small fraction were related to crack.

Crack cocaine is not more potent than powder cocaine—and it’s not the most dangerous FORM OF cocaine USE.

  • Crack cocaine is cocaine base, which is the active ingredient in powder cocaine. Crack is made out of powder cocaine in a simple kitchen-like preparation with baking soda and water. Upon evaporation, it becomes a solid ‘rock’ that can be vaporized or smoked. Smoking crack leads to more intense sensations than snorting powder cocaine because inhaling cocaine vapor into the lungs allows the body to absorb the drug more quickly – not because of any chemical difference between the two forms of cocaine. In fact, the most dangerous form of cocaine, measured by risk of overdose or death, isn’t crack at all, but powder cocaine delivered through injection.

“Crack babies” are a myth.

  • Media in the 1980's popularized the idea that children of women who used crack while pregnant were, as Charles Krauthammer put it, a neurologically damaged “bio-underclass.” One expert testifying before the US Senate Government Affairs Committee dramatically predicted that these children would grow up “unable to make rational decisions, without capacity for sympathy or even respect for human life.” But now, decades of follow-up research have definitively debunked the irreversible impairment of “crack babies.” Although infants born to women who use crack during pregnancy are more likely to be born prematurely (which is a serious negative outcome and not to be minimized), those who are born at full term have no worse outcomes than demographically similar children born to women not using crack cocaine during pregnancy. Researchers of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) studying images of “crack babies” from the 1980's believe that the infants depicted may actually have been suffering from FAS, which continues to cause far more harm to newborns than the effects of crack. Despite these facts, more than 30 states have passed laws that punish or imprison pregnant women addicted to crack. The criminal justice consequences to such mothers have far more striking negative outcomes on the psychological and social development of their children than any use of crack cocaine--while the handicaps caused by prenatal cocaine use are now speculative, the development and psychological harms of having an incarcerated parent are well-documented.

Why THIS Matters:

The myths about crack cocaine led to staggering injustices in sentencing for crack cocaine offenses. For over two decades, crack cocaine possession was punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine possession. Though most crack cocaine users are white, over 80 percent of all crack cocaine defendants are black. As a result, these crack cocaine laws led to long prison sentences for large numbers of low-level African-American crack offenders. Politicians refused to fix the sentencing disparity for decades. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which finally closed this disparity, still left in place an 18-fold difference . Today, a five year mandatory minimum prison sentence is triggered by 500 grams of powder cocaine but only 28 grams of crack cocaine. Do crack’s dangers justify this disparity? The facts say no: chemically, crack and powder cocaine are just two forms of the same substance. We would not punish heroin possession differently depending on whether the user planned to inject or snort it, yet we continue to do so with cocaine. In fact, the most dangerous method of administering cocaine is not smoking crack but injecting powder cocaine—the form of the drug that we punish less severely.