Who uses crack cocaine, and why?

Media stereotypes paint crack users as inner-city crackheads and irresponsible “crack mothers” who spend all day chasing their next high. The political furor against these crack users has been fueled by racially coded language—as a result of overwhelmingly skewed media portrayals, one 1995 study found that 95% of those asked to picture a drug user envisioned a black person. Here’s the truth:

MOST CRACK USERS ARE WHITE, ESPECIALLY AMONG YOUNG ADULTS.

  • Statistics from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reveal that 55% of past-month crack users are white. Black Americans, who make up 12.2% of the population, account for 37% of crack users, meaning that they are 3.5 times more likely than whites to be regular crack users. But black people are 21.2 times more likely than white people to go to federal prison on a crack charge.

  • The black share of the crack using population is only dropping. Today, young white people are nine times more likely to try crack cocaine than young black people, and the disparity is increasing. 
  • Among older generations, black Americans are more likely than white ones to have used crack, but that pattern hasn’t held among young Americans for decades.

CRACK USERS ARE SELF-MEDICATING TO COPE WITH UNTREATED TRAUMA AND VIOLENCE.

  • Crack use is correlated with trauma such as childhood abuse. One study found that, even controlling for demographic factors, childhood abuse was a contributing factor in nearly 60% of crack cocaine use. These statistics suggest that crack users turn to drugs to cope with trauma in their pasts, not because they are fundamentally irresponsible.

  • According to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a majority of expectant mothers addicted to crack are victims of domestic violence in their relationships.

  • As the same organization puts it: “Like Vietnam veterans who self medicated with drugs for their post-traumatic stress disorders, at least some pregnant women also use drugs to numb the pain of violent and traumatic life experiences.”

WHY IT MATTERS:

Because of the myths surrounding crack, Americans feel that crack users are criminals who must be locked up at all costs. Yet for most crack users, comprehensive addiction treatment would be a far more appropriate response to crack use than imprisonment.

In addition, since the general public incorrectly believes that black people make up the vast majority of crack cocaine users, they are not surprised to see that black people make up 80% of those incarcerated for crack cocaine possession on a federal level. This should be a shocking statistic given the truth, which is that roughly 34 percent of crack cocaine users are black. Even worse, young black people are much less likely than whites to use crack cocaine, yet young black people make up the majority of the federal prison population for crack cocaine possession.

Unfortunately, American society may be willing to punish crack cocaine more harshly than powder cocaine precisely because it sees crack as a ‘black’ drug. Research shows that white Americans who more strongly associate blackness with criminality are more likely to support harsh punishments for crime, suggesting a subconscious belief that while white misconduct can be corrected through rehabilitation, black behavior should be corrected through punishment. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could benefit from counseling and addiction treatment are instead languishing in expensive federal prisons.