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 $5.70 in 2015).[1]

By 1983, crack had appeared in New York City.[1] Its use expanded rapidly and 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."[3]

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.[4] 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.[4] 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.[4] Further, Webb alleges the government offered political asylum to known Nicaraguan drug traffickers, like Blandon, which marked a major break of State Department Policy.[5]

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.[6]


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.[7] 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.[6][8]

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,[9] though social, non-pecuniary contributing factors have been suggested.[10]

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."[11] 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.[9]

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.[13]

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. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ a b c Peter Kornbluh (Jan–Feb 1997). "Crack, the Contras, and the CIA: The Storm Over "Dark Alliance"". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved February 10, 2008. 
  5. ^ Webb, Gary (1999). Dark Alliance. Seven Stories Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-1-888363-93-7. 
  6. ^ a b How bad was Crack Cocaine? The Economics of an Illicit Drug Market. Researched by Steven D. Levitt and Kevin M. Murphy [1].
  7. ^ Fryer, Roland (April 2006). "Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact" (PDF). Harvard University Society of Fellows: 3, 66. Retrieved January 4, 2016. 
  8. ^ The World Factbook. Retrieved on 2014-05-12.
  9. ^ a b "CRACK:INNER CITY DECAY IN AMERICA". Archived from the original on January 6, 2008. [not in citation given]
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Inciardi, 1994
  12. ^ Viera, Bené (November 26, 2011). "'Planet Rock' Shows The Power Of Hip-hop". 
  13. ^ "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]