Crack epidemic in the United States

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The crack epidemic was a surge of crack cocaine use in major cities across the United States beginning between the early 1980s and the 1990s.[1] This resulted in a number of social consequences, such as increasing crime and violence in American inner city neighborhoods, as well as a resulting backlash in the form of tough on crime policies. In contrast to the later opioid epidemic in the United States, the crack epidemic was not perceived or treated as a health crisis at the time.


"Rocks" of crack cocaine, with a ruler (marked in inches) for reference

The name "crack" first appeared in the New York Times on November 17, 1985. Within a year more than a thousand press stories had been released about the drug. In the early 1980s, the majority of cocaine being shipped to the United States was landing in Miami, and originated in Colombia, trafficked through the Bahamas and Dominican Republic.[1] Soon there was a huge glut of cocaine powder in these islands, which caused the price to drop by as much as 80 percent.[1] Faced with dropping prices for their illegal product, drug dealers made a decision to convert the powder to "crack", a solid smokeable form of cocaine, that could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop.[1] As early as 1981, reports of crack were appearing in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Miami, Houston, New York, and in the Caribbean.[1]

Initially, crack had higher purity than street powder.[2] Around 1984, powder cocaine was available on the street at an average of 55 percent purity for $100 per gram (equivalent to $249 in 2020), and crack was sold at average purity levels of 80-plus percent for the same price.[1] In some major cities, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Houston and Detroit, one dose of crack could be obtained for as little as $2.50 (equivalent to $6 in 2020).[1]

According to the 1985–1986 National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, crack was available in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, New York City, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix.[3]

In 1985, cocaine-related hospital emergencies rose by 12 percent, from 23,500 to 26,300. In 1986, these incidents increased 110 percent, from 26,300 to 55,200. Between 1984 and 1987, cocaine incidents increased to 94,000. By 1987, crack was reported to be available in the District of Columbia and all but four states in the United States.[1]

Some scholars have cited the crack "epidemic" as an example of a moral panic, noting that the explosion in use and trafficking of the drug actually occurred after the media coverage of the drug as an "epidemic".[4]

Later, the epidemic died down, as a new generation avoided the drug after seeing its effects on the previous generation.[5]

Impact by region[edit]

In a study done by Roland Fryer, Steven Levitt, and Kevin Murphy, a crack index was calculated using information on cocaine-related arrests, deaths, and drug raids, along with low birth rates and media coverage in the United States. The crack index aimed to create a proxy for the percentage of cocaine related incidents that involved crack. Crack was an almost unknown drug until 1985. This abrupt introductory date allows for the estimation and use of the index with the knowledge that values prior to 1985 are zero.[dubious ][6] This index showed that the Northeast U.S. was most affected by the crack epidemic. The U.S. cities with the highest crack index were New York especially in the Washington Heights neighborhood of this city, Newark and Philadelphia.

The same index used by Fryer, Levitt and Murphy[7] was then implemented in a study that investigated the effects of crack cocaine across the United States. In cities with populations over 350,000 the instances of crack cocaine were twice as high as those in cities with a population less than 350,000. These indicators show that the use of crack cocaine was much higher in urban areas.

States and regions with concentrated urban populations were affected at a much higher rate, while states with primarily rural populations were least affected.[citation needed] Maryland, New York and New Mexico had the highest instances of crack cocaine use, while Idaho, Minnesota and Vermont had the lowest instances of crack cocaine use.[citation needed]

Effect on African American communities[edit]

Due to racial segregation and discriminatory practices by real estate agents, African American families were largely located in low-income inner city neighborhoods. This led to crack impacting African American communities far more than others.[8]

Between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 more than doubled, and the homicide rate for black males aged 18 to 24 increased nearly as much. During this period, the black community also experienced a 20–100% increase in fetal death rates, low birth-weight babies, weapons arrests, and the number of children in foster care.[9] The United States remains the largest overall consumer of narcotics in the world as of 2014.[10][11]

A 2018 study found that the crack epidemic had long-run consequences for crime, contributing to the doubling of the murder rate of young black males soon after the start of the epidemic, and that the murder rate was still 70 percent higher 17 years after crack's arrival.[12] The paper estimated that eight percent of the murders in 2000 are due to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets, and that the elevated murder rates for young black males can explain a significant part of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.[12]

The reasons for these increases in crime were mostly because distribution of the drug to the end-user occurred mainly in low-income inner city neighborhoods. This gave many inner-city residents the opportunity to move up the "economic ladder" in a drug market that allowed dealers to charge a low minimum price.

Crack cocaine use and distribution became popular in cities that were in a state of social and economic chaos such as New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. "As a result of the low-skill levels and minimal initial resource outlay required to sell crack, systemic violence flourished as a growing army of young, enthusiastic inner-city crack sellers attempt to defend their economic investment."[13] Once the drug became embedded in the particular communities, the economic environment that was best suited for its survival caused further social disintegration within that city.

Sentencing disparities[edit]

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine,[14][15][16][17] which had been widely criticized as discriminatory against minorities, mostly African-Americans, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.[18] This 100:1 ratio had been required under federal law since 1986.[19] Persons convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in federal prison. On the other hand, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence.[15][16] In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity to 18:1.[18]

In 2000, the number of incarcerated African Americans was 26 times what it was in 1983.[citation needed]

In 2012, 88% of imprisonments from crack cocaine were African American. Further, the data shows the discrepancy between lengths of sentences of crack cocaine and heroin. The majority of crack imprisonments are placed in the 10–20 year range, while the imprisonments related to heroin use or possession range from 5–10 years which is linked to higher probabilities of crack cases involving a gun and prior offenses.[20]

Post epidemic commentary[edit]

In 2007, Memphis black writer Demico Boothe, who spent 12 years in federal prison after being arrested for the first-time offense of selling crack cocaine at the age of 18, published the book, "Why Are So Many Black Men in Prison?" The book makes the same essential charges that are made in the better-known book published five years later by Michelle Alexander, cited below.[21]

Writer and lawyer Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness argues that punitive laws against drugs like crack cocaine adopted under the Reagan Administration's War on drugs resulted in harsh social consequences, including large numbers of young black men imprisoned for long sentences, the exacerbation of drug crime despite a decrease in illegal drug use in the United States, increased police brutality against the black community resulting in injury and death for many black men, women, and children.[22]

According to Alexander, society turned into a racist criminal justice system to avoid exhibiting obvious racism. Since African Americans were the majority users of crack cocaine, it provided a platform for the government to create laws that were specific to crack. She claims that this was an effective way to imprison black people without having to do the same to white Americans. Thus, there was a discourse of African Americans and a perpetuated narrative about crack addiction that was villainous and problematic. The criminalizing of African American crack users was portrayed as dangerous and harmful to society.

Alexander writes that felony drug convictions for crack cocaine fell disproportionately on young black men, who then lost access to voting, housing, and employment opportunities. These economic setbacks led to increased violent crime in poor black communities as families did what they had to do to survive.

Alexander explains the process of someone who is caught with crack: first, the arrest and the court hearing that will result in jail or prison-time. Second, the aftermath of permanent stigmas attached to someone who has done jail-time for crack, like being marked a felon on their record. This affects job opportunity, housing opportunity, and creates obstacles for people who are left with little motivation to follow the law, making it more likely that they will be arrested again.

Dark Alliance series[edit]

San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb sparked national controversy with his 1996 Dark Alliance series which alleged that the influx of Nicaraguan cocaine started and significantly fueled the 1980s crack epidemic.[23] Investigating the lives and connections of Los Angeles crack dealers Ricky Ross, Oscar Danilo Blandón, and Norwin Meneses, Webb alleged that profits from these crack sales were funneled to the CIA-supported Contras.

The United States Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General rejected Webb's claim that there was a "systematic effort by the CIA to protect the drug trafficking activities of the Contras". The DOJ/OIG reported: "We found that Blandon and Meneses were plainly major drug traffickers who enriched themselves at the expense of countless drug users and the communities in which these drug users lived, just like other drug dealers of their magnitude. They also contributed some money to the Contra cause. But we did not find that their activities were the cause of the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, much less in the United States as a whole, or that they were a significant source of support for the Contras."[24]

Influence on popular culture[edit]

Documentary films[edit]

Documentary serials[edit]



Video games[edit]

Research books[edit]

  • Sudhir Venkatesh (Indian American sociologist scholar and reporter)
    • Freakonomics (2005) – Chapter: "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms"
    • American Project. The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, Harvard University Press, 2000
    • Off the Books. The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Harvard University Press, 2006
    • Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Penguin Press, 2008
    • Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy, Penguin Press, 2013

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "DEA History Book, 1876–1990" (drug usage & enforcement), US Department of Justice, 1991, webpage: DoJ-DEA-History-1985-1990.
  2. ^ The word "street" is used as an adjective meaning "not involving an official business location or permanent residence" such as: "sold on the street" or "street people" in reference to people who live part-time along streets.
  3. ^ "The Drug Enforcement Administration 1985–1990" (PDF). Retrieved 2021-01-19.
  4. ^ Reinarman, C. and Levine, H. (1989). "The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in America's Latest Drug Scare". In J. Best (ed.). Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) see also Reeves, J. L. and Campbell, R. (1994). Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  5. ^ Egan, Timothy (September 19, 1999). "CRACK'S LEGACY: A special report; A Drug Ran Its Course, Then Hid With Its Users". The New York Times.
  6. ^ Beverly Xaviera Watkins, et al. "Arms against Illness: Crack Cocaine and Drug Policy in the United States." Health and Human Rights, vol. 2, no. 4, 1998, pp. 42–58.
  7. ^ Fryer, Roland G., et al. "Measuring Crack Cocaine And Its Impact." Economic Inquiry, vol. 51, no. 3, July 2013, pp. 1651–1681., doi:10.1111/j.1465-7295.2012.00506.x.
  8. ^ Dunlap, Eloise; Golub, Andrew; Johnson, Bruce D (2006). "The Severely-Distressed African American Family in the Crack Era: Empowerment is not Enough". Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. Western Michigan University. 33 (1): 115–139. PMC 2565489. PMID 18852841.
  9. ^ Fryer, Roland (April 2006). "Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact" (PDF). Harvard University Society of Fellows: 3, 66. Retrieved January 4, 2016.
  10. ^ How bad was Crack Cocaine? The Economics of an Illicit Drug Market. Researched by Steven D. Levitt and Kevin M. Murphy [1].
  11. ^ The World Factbook Archived 2010-12-29 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 2014-05-12.
  12. ^ a b Evans, William N; Garthwaite, Craig; Moore, Timothy J (2018). "Guns and Violence: The Enduring Impact of Crack Cocaine Markets on Young Black Males". doi:10.3386/w24819. S2CID 145030279. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ Inciardi, 1994
  14. ^ Jim Abrams (July 29, 2010). "Congress passes bill to reduce disparity in crack, powder cocaine sentencing". Washington Post.
  15. ^ a b Burton-Rose (ed.), 1998: pp. 246–247
  16. ^ a b Elsner, Alan (2004). Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons. Saddle River, New Jersey: Financial Times Prentice Hall. p. 20. ISBN 0-13-142791-1.
  17. ^ United States Sentencing Commission (2002). "Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy" (PDF). p. 6. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 15, 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2010. As a result of the 1986 Act ... penalties for a first-time cocaine trafficking offense: 5 grams or more of crack cocaine = five-year mandatory minimum penalty
  18. ^ a b "The Fair Sentencing Act corrects a long-time wrong in cocaine cases", The Washington Post, August 3, 2010. Retrieved September 30, 2010.
  19. ^ Durbin's Fair Sentencing Act Passed By House, Sent To President For Signature, Retrieved September 30, 2010. Archived March 6, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Conclusions" (PDF). Retrieved 2019-08-07.
  21. ^ Boothe, Demico (2007). Why Are So Many Black Men in Prison?. Full Surface Publishing. ISBN 978-0979295300.
  22. ^ Alexander, Michelle (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. ISBN 978-1595586438.
  23. ^ Peter Kornbluh (Jan–Feb 1997). "Crack, the Contras, and the CIA: The Storm Over "Dark Alliance"". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved February 10, 2008.
  24. ^ "CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy".
  25. ^ Viera, Bené (November 26, 2011). "'Planet Rock' Shows The Power Of Hip-hop".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]