Crack epidemic in the United States

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President George H. W. Bush holds up a bag of crack cocaine during his Address to the Nation on National Drug Control Strategy

The crack epidemic was a surge of crack cocaine use in major cities across the United States throughout the entirety of the 1980s and the early 1990s.[1][2] This resulted in a number of social consequences, such as increasing crime and violence in American inner city neighborhoods, a resulting backlash in the form of tough on crime policies, and a massive spike in incarceration rates.[3]

Crack cocaine[edit]

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.[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 smokable 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, New York, Miami, Houston, and in the Caribbean.[1]

The word "crack" may have first appeared in a media publication in the sub-headline of a Rolling Stone article on May 1, 1980, titled "Freebase: A Treacherous Obsession: The rise of crack cocaine and the fall of addicts destroyed by the drug".[4] The article said that freebase made its "strongest inroads" in the music industry of Los Angeles and at this time, in 1980, the similar crack form had just been starting (and in a few years would become predominant and also move to the East Coast and elsewhere). The article describes both the earlier free base method of purifying cocaine to make it smokable which started in 1974 and the newer but similar crack making process. Freebase was made by users who would combine cocaine with baking soda and water and then extract the base salt, "freeing it" with ammonia. This achieves a lower melting point and when heated with a lighter, the vapors are inhaled (but the substance was dangerously flammable). A less volatile but similar process was developed by dealers around 1980 where street cocaine is dissolved in a solution of water and baking soda and then dried out into "crack rocks". As the rocks are heated, it makes a crackling sound and this is how the substance got its name. It was not until 1985 after an article in The New York Times describing crack use in the Bronx, New York titled "A new, purified form of cocaine causes alarm as abuse increases"[5] that within a year, more than a thousand press stories were published.

Initially, crack had higher purity than street powder.[6] Around 1984, powder cocaine was available on the street at an average of 55 percent purity for $100 per gram (equivalent to $293 in 2023), 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 $7 in 2023).[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.[7]

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".[8]

Impact by region[edit]

Various paraphernalia used to smoke crack cocaine, including a homemade crack pipe made out of an empty plastic water bottle.

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 essentially zero.[9] 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 the city's Washington Heights neighborhood), Newark and Philadelphia.

The same index used by Fryer, Levitt and Murphy[10] 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]

African American families were largely located in low-income inner city neighborhoods. This led to crack impacting African American communities far more than others.[11]

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.[12]

A 2018 study found that the crack epidemic had long term 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.[13] 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.[13]

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, and particularly in their low-income inner city neighborhoods with high African American concentrations.[11] "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."[14] 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]

Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities from 1920 to 2014. A major spike in incarcerations can be seen between 1980 and 2000.

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 powder cocaine,[15][16][17][18] widely criticized as discriminatory against African-Americans and other racial minorities, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.[19] This 100:1 ratio was mandated by federal law in 1986.[20] 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.[16][17] In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity to 18:1.[19]

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.[21]

Post-epidemic commentary[edit]

A man at New York Comic Con cosplaying as Tyrone Biggums, a character in the American sketch comedy series Chappelle's Show. Tyrone's character represents an African-American man who became downtrodden and afflicted by the effects of crack.

A number of authors have discussed race and the crack epidemic, including 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?" in 2007.[22]

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, and increased police brutality against the Black community resulting in injury and death for many black men, women, and children.[23]

According to Alexander, society turned to racist criminal justice policies to avoid exhibiting obvious racism. She writes that, 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. 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, which then led to increased violent crime in poor Black communities.[23]

Legal Scholar James Forman Jr. argues that though Alexander's book has value in focusing scholars (and society as a whole) on the failures of the criminal justice system, it obscures African-American support for tougher crime laws and downplays the role of violent crime in the story of incarceration.[24]

John Pfaff, in his book Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, criticizes Alexander's assertion that the Drug War, including sentencing disparities for crack, is responsible for mass incarceration. Among his findings are that drug offenders make up only a small part of the prison population, and non-violent drug offenders an even smaller portion; that people convicted of violent crimes make up the majority of prisoners; that county and state justice systems account for the large majority of American prisoners and not the federal system that handles most drug cases; and, subsequently, "national" statistics tell a distorted story when differences in enforcement, conviction, and sentencing are widely disparate between states and counties.[25]

Dark Alliance series[edit]

San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb sparked national controversy with his 1996 Dark Alliance series which alleged that Nicaraguan dealers with Contra ties started and significantly fueled the 1980s crack epidemic.[26] 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."[27]

Influence on popular culture[edit]

Documentary films[edit]

Documentary serials[edit]



Video games[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
  • Donovan X. Ramsey (2023). When Crack Was King: A People's History of a Misunderstood Era. One World. ISBN 978-0525511809.

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. ^ "crack epidemic | United States history [1980s] | Britannica". Retrieved December 21, 2022.
  3. ^ "50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black Americans". PBS NewsHour. July 26, 2021. Retrieved December 22, 2022.
  4. ^ Charles, Perry (May 1, 1980). "Freebase: A Treacherous Obsession". Rolling Stone.
  5. ^ Gross, Jane (November 29, 1985). "A new, purified form of cocaine causes alarm as Abuse increases". New York Times.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "The Drug Enforcement Administration 1985–1990" (PDF). Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  8. ^ Reinarman, C.; 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. see also Reeves, J. L.; Campbell, R. (1994). Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ a b 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. 33 (1). Western Michigan University: 115–139. doi:10.15453/0191-5096.3138. PMC 2565489. PMID 18852841.
  12. ^ Fryer, Roland (April 2006). "Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact" (PDF). Harvard University Society of Fellows: 3, 66. Retrieved January 4, 2016.
  13. ^ 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". Working Paper Series. doi:10.3386/w24819. S2CID 145030279. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Inciardi, 1994
  15. ^ Jim Abrams (July 29, 2010). "Congress passes bill to reduce disparity in crack, powder cocaine sentencing". Washington Post.
  16. ^ a b Burton-Rose (ed.), 1998: pp. 246–247
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ a b "The Fair Sentencing Act corrects a long-time wrong in cocaine cases", The Washington Post, August 3, 2010. Retrieved September 30, 2010.
  20. ^ 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
  21. ^ "Conclusions" (PDF). Retrieved August 7, 2019.
  22. ^ Boothe, Demico (2007). Why Are So Many Black Men in Prison?. Full Surface Publishing. ISBN 978-0979295300.
  23. ^ a b Alexander, Michelle (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. ISBN 978-1595586438.
  24. ^ Forman, James Jr. (2012). "Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow". Yale Commons. Retrieved March 7, 2017.
  25. ^ Lopez, German (May 30, 2017). "Why you can't blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs". Retrieved June 22, 2017.
  26. ^ Peter Kornbluh (January–February 1997). "Crack, the Contras, and the CIA: The Storm Over "Dark Alliance"". Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved February 10, 2008.
  27. ^ "CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy".
  28. ^ Viera, Bené (November 26, 2011). "'Planet Rock' Shows The Power Of Hip-hop". HuffPost.

Further reading[edit]

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