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 a University of Pennsylvania medical school professor warning 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.” They were repeating a conventional wisdom based on anecdote and little evidence. But even today, some anti-drug campaigns and educational materials make similar claims: the 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 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 withdrawal from crack, especially involuntary withdrawal when a user has no money or cannot find a dealer, 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 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 preparation with baking soda and water. Upon evaporation, the mixture becomes a solid "rock" and when heated the cocaine base is vaporized (that is, "smoked"). Inhaling cocaine vapor, "smoking crack," leads to more intense sensations than snorting powder cocaine because inhaling cocaine vapor into the lungs allows the body to absorb a much greater dosage of the drug more quickly than by snorting – 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, 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, follow-up research over decades has definitively debunked the claim of 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. More than 30 states passed laws that punish or imprison pregnant women addicted to crack, but despite the facts, they have not repealed them. The criminal justice consequences of crack laws for such mothers have had more striking negative outcomes on the psychological and social development of their children than the maternal use of crack cocaine. The handicaps caused by prenatal cocaine use are now speculative, but the developmental and psychological harms of having an incarcerated parent are well-documented.

Why THIS Matters:

The myths about crack cocaine have led to staggering injustices in sentencing for crack cocaine offenses. For over two decades, crack cocaine distribution was punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine distribution on a months per gram basis set by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. (Crack possession, much less frequently prosecuted in federal court than in state courts, if equal to or exceeding 5 grams, was subject to a mandatory 5 years of imprisonment. Possession of 5 grams of powder cocaine often resulted in a time served sentence or probation.)  Under the federal crack cocaine mandatory sentencing laws of 1986, distributing 5 g. of crack carried a sentence of at least 5 years up to 40 years, and distributing 50 g. of crack carried a sentence of at least 10 years up to life imprisonment. For powder cocaine, these sentences were triggered by at least 500 g. or 5000 g. respectively -- the infamous "100-to-1" disparity. With the federal Sentencing Guidelines, beginning in 1987, quantities of these drugs larger than the minimum triggered sentences greater than the minimums.

Though most crack cocaine users are white,  as a result of U.S. Department of Justice case selection practices, over 80 percent of all crack cocaine defendants have been black. Thus the intense federal enforcement of these laws from 1987 to 2010 led to very long prison sentences for large numbers of low-level African-American crack offenders. Congress refused to fix the sentencing disparity for decades. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which finally reduced the "100-to-1" disparity, left an 18-fold difference between the trigger for crack and the trigger for powder cocaine. Today, a five year mandatory minimum prison sentence is still triggered by 500 grams of powder cocaine but only 28 grams of crack cocaine.

Do crack’s dangers justify this disparity? No. Chemically, crack and powder cocaine are just two types of mixtures that contain the same substance that affects the nervous system in just one way. We do not punish illegal alcohol possession differently depending on whether the user planned to drink whiskey or beer. In fact, the most lethal method of administering cocaine is injecting powder cocaine — the form of cocaine that federal law punishes less severely -- not smoking crack.