Crack epidemic

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A standard "street" dosage of crack cocaine, with a ruler (marked in inches) for comparison.

The American crack epidemic was a surge of crack cocaine use in major cities across the United States between 1984 and the early 1990s.[1]


In the early 1980s, the majority of cocaine being shipped to the United States, landing in Miami, was coming 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, San Diego, Miami, Houston, 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 $230 in 2015), 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, Philadelphia, Houston, Los Angeles, and Detroit, one dosage unit of crack could be obtained for as little as $2.50 (equivalent to $5.69 in 2015).[1]

Crack first began to be used on a large scale in Los Angeles in 1984.[1][3] The distribution and use of the drug exploded that same year. By the end of 1986, it was available in 28 states and the District of Columbia. According to the 1985–1986 National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report, crack was available in New Orleans, Memphis, Philadelphia, New York City, Houston, San Diego, San Antonio, Baltimore, Portland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta, Oakland, Kansas City, Miami, Newark, Boston, San Francisco, Albany, Buffalo, and Dallas.

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]

CIA and Contras cocaine trafficking[edit]

Beginning with the Iran–Contra affair, some politicians and journalists began arguing that the CIA contributed to the rise of the epidemic.[5] Allegations ranged from the presence of drug ties to the Contra rebels, to possible direct involvement in drug trafficking by the Contras and even members of the CIA. The exact degree of awareness and involvement on the part of the CIA itself continues to be disputed. However, on April 17, 1986, the Reagan Administration released a three-page report admitting that there were some Contra-cocaine connections in 1984 and 1985, arguing that these connections occurred at a time when the rebels were "particularly hard pressed for financial support" because U.S. aid had been cut off.[6]

Kerry Committee report[edit]

The Kerry Committee report was an investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding charges of Contra involvement in cocaine and marijuana trafficking. Lasting two and a half years, the Subcommittee released their final report on April 13, 1989. They found that "it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking ... and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers."[7]

The report cited legal cover provided by the CIA to anti-Sandinista rebels in the drug trade as well as accounting for $806,000 paid by the State Department to "four companies owned and operated by narcotics traffickers."[8] The Subcommittee found that the Contra drug links included:

  • "Involvement in narcotics trafficking by individuals associated with the Contra movement."
  • "Participation of narcotics traffickers in Contra supply operations through business relationships with Contra organizations."
  • "Provision of assistance to the Contras by narcotics traffickers, including cash, weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials, on a voluntary basis by the traffickers."
  • "Payments to drug traffickers by the U.S. State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies."[8]

The committee's findings provoked little reaction in the media and official Washington. A Columbia Journalism Review article noted that "the Washington Post ran a short article on page A20 that focused as much on the infighting within the committee as on its findings; the New York Times ran a short piece on A8; the Los Angeles Times ran a 589-word story on A11."[9]

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. 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.[9] Although Webb never claimed that the CIA directly aided drug dealers, it echoed the Kerry Committee conclusion that the CIA was aware of large shipments of cocaine into the U.S. by Contra personnel.[9] Further, Webb alleges the government offered political asylum to known Nicaraguan drug traffickers, like Blandon, which marked a major break of State Department Policy.[10]

Interest in the series occurred outside the mainstream press, as the story spread through black talk radio and the Internet.[9] Hits to the Mercury Center's website escalated dramatically, some days reaching as high as 1.3 million.[9] Protests across the country were channeled through the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, who pushed both the CIA and the Justice Department to initiate internal investigations into charges of government complicity in the crack trade.[11]

Rebuttals to Webb's argument came from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The Columbia Journalism Review stated that "it was public pressure that essentially forced the media to address Webb's allegations" noting the contrast between coverage of the Kerry Committee report and "the newspapers’ lengthy rebuttals to the Mercury News series seven years later—collectively totaling over 30,000 words."[9] Outside pressure eventually led the editorial board of Mercury News to concede that they had presented "only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes-conflicting pieces of evidence".[12]

Aftermath of Dark Alliance[edit]

At the conclusion of its internal investigation, CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz testified to the House Committee on Intelligence in 1998:

"We have found no evidence in the course of this lengthy investigation of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States. However, during the Contra era, CIA worked with a variety of people to support the Contra program. These included CIA assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others. Let me be frank about what we are finding. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations."[13]

The CIA's investigation was released in two volumes. The first volume reported finding no information relating Ross, Blandón, Donte Harrod or Meneses to the Contras or the CIA. The volume did, however, admit to intervening in Department of Justice prosecution of a San Francisco-based crack dealer with ties to the Contras.[14] The second volume identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade.[15] It also outlined an instance in 1981 when CIA headquarters became aware of a Contra group that decided to "engage in drug smuggling to the United States in order to finance its anti-Sandinista operations" as well as being made aware of an "initial trial run" in which drugs were transported by this organization via plane to Miami.[15]

Also in 1998, Rep. Maxine Waters introduced into the Congressional Record a February 11, 1982 correspondence between Attorney General William French Smith and CIA Director William J. Casey. The "letter of understanding" had explicitly exempted the CIA from "formal requirements regarding the reporting of narcotics violations".[16] This was a technicality which freed CIA field agents from having to report narcotics violations if they witnessed them.[17]

Impact by region[edit]

Using an index that combined indicators like crack cocaine related deaths and medical emergencies, arrests and seizures, and media coverage, researchers Steven Levitt and Kevin M Murphy found that the drug's worst impact was on the Northeastern and South Atlantic States, headed by New York and Maryland. 70% of the impact of crack was felt in large cities, and the rates per capita were 10 times higher in larger cities than in the rest of the nation. During the time period studied, cities with the worst crack problems were Newark, Philadelphia, New York, Oakland, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Other cities that rank high include New Orleans, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.[18]


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.[19] In 1996, approximately 60% of inmates incarcerated in the US were sentenced on drug charges. The United States remains the largest overall consumer of narcotics in the world as of 2014.[18][20]

The reasons for these increases in crime were mostly because distribution for 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. The basic reason for the rise of crack was economic,[21] though social, non-pecuniary contributing factors have been suggested.[22]

Evidently,[according to whom?] crack cocaine use and distribution became popular in cities that were in social and economic chaos such as 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."[23] 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. An environment that was based on violence and deceit was an avenue for the crack dealers to protect their economic interests.[21]

Influence on popular culture[edit]

In documentary films[edit]

In documentary serials[edit]

In film[edit]

In music[edit]

The beginning of the crack epidemic coincided the rise of hip hop music in the United States' black and Hispanic communities in the mid-1980s, heavily influencing the evolution of hardcore hip hop and gangsta rap as both crack and hip hop became the two leading fundamentals of urban street culture.[25] Notable rappers purported to have been involved in the crack cocaine trade during the 1980s and 1990s include 50 Cent, Joell Ortiz, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Eazy-E, The Notorious B.I.G, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Maino, BG Knocc Out, Cold 187um, Blue Scholars and Kool G Rap among others.

In 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 i "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. ^ Blum, William (November 1996), Barry, Tom and Honey, Martha, eds., The CIA, Contras, Gangs, and Crack, 1 (11), archived from the original on December 26, 2006 
  4. ^ Reinarman, C. and Levine, H. (1989). "The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in America's Latest Drug Scare". In J. Best. Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.  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. 
  5. ^ Webb, Gary (1999). Dark Alliance. Seven Stories Press. ISBN 978-1-888363-93-7. 
  6. ^ "U.S. Concedes Contras Linked to Drugs, But Denies Leadership Involved", Associated Press (April 17, 1986).
  7. ^ Cockburn, Alexander; Jeffrey St Clair (October 1, 1999). Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press. Verso. ISBN 1-85984-258-5. 
  8. ^ a b Senate Foreign Relations Committee (April 1989). "Selections from the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy". U.S. Senate. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Peter Kornbluh (Jan–Feb 1997). "Crack, the Contras, and the CIA: The Storm Over "Dark Alliance"". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved February 10, 2008. 
  10. ^ Webb, Gary (1999). Dark Alliance. Seven Stories Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-888363-93-7. 
  11. ^ Norman Solomon (Jan–Feb 1997). "Snow Job: The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA". Extra!. Archived from the original on February 11, 2005. Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  12. ^ Barbara Bliss Osborn (Mar–Apr 1998). "Are You Sure You Want to Ruin Your Career?". FAIR. Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  13. ^ Frederick P. Hitz (March 16, 1998). "Prepared Statement of Frederick P. Hitz inspector General, Central Intelligence Agency Before The House Committee On Intelligence subject – Investigation Of allegations of Connections Between CIA and the Contras In Drug Trafficking to the United States". Federal News Service. Retrieved April 22, 2006. 
  14. ^ Office of Inspector General Investigations Staff (January 29, 1998). "Volume I: The California Story". CIA. Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  15. ^ a b Office of Inspector General Investigations Staff (October 8, 1998). "Volume II: The Contra Story". CIA. Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  16. ^ AG William French Smith (February 11, 1982). "Personal Correspondence Between Attorney General William French Smith and CIA Director William J. Casey". CIA. Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  17. ^ Craig Delaval (2003). "Cocaine, Conspiracy Theories & The CIA in Central America". Retrieved February 11, 2008. 
  18. ^ a b How bad was Crack Cocaine? The Economics of an Illicit Drug Market. Researched by Steven D. Levitt and Kevin M. Murphy [1].
  19. ^ Fryer, Roland (April 2006). "Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact" (PDF). Harvard University Society of Fellows: 3, 66. Retrieved January 4, 2016. 
  20. ^ The World Factbook. Retrieved on 2014-05-12.
  21. ^ a b "CRACK:INNER CITY DECAY IN AMERICA". Archived from the original on January 6, 2008. [not in citation given]
  22. ^ Steven D. Levitt; Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (August 2000). "An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang's Finances" (PDF). Quarterly Journal of Economics. 115: 755–789. doi:10.1162/003355300554908. 
  23. ^ Inciardi, 1994
  24. ^ Viera, Bené (November 26, 2011). "'Planet Rock' Shows The Power Of Hip-hop". 
  25. ^ "Hip Hop and the Crack Epidemic". November 21, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Reinarman, Craig; Levine, Harry G. (1997). Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520202429. 

External links[edit]