Anatomy of a Drug Craze

Why Tough Laws Can't Claim Credit for Beating Back Crack

The abandoned trailer in Bushwick, Brooklyn, has only been a serious crack hangout for a few years. Inside, perched on crates, car seats, and debris, a handful of people hang out and get high. One clean-cut twentysomething who calls himself Scotty ("as in beam me up," he explains) smokes a couple of rocks before heading off to work. Maria, a skinny 27-year-old dressed in sweats, convinces her friend to "hook her up." Another woman furiously cleans out her pipe. With the exception of Jessie, a homeless 37-year-old, all started smoking crack after 1990, when what drug experts call "the crack era" officially ended.

There is no shortage of spots like the trailer and no shortage of crack users to hang out in them. Yet there is a popular perception--or misperception--that crack use is completely gone. When the little rocks of cooked coke hit their height of popularity in 1988, 70 per cent of those booked in Manhattan tested positive for cocaine (most of which is thought to be crack). By 1996, that had dropped, but only to 62 per cent. Cocaine-related deaths in New York City went down some 31 per cent in the same period, but still totaled 906 in 1996.

With the myth of crack's demise comes another dubious notion: that furious legal attacks, including the Rockefeller drug laws, a ballistic police response, and crack-specific legislation, have brought the epidemic to its knees. Just around the corner from where Marie and "Scotty" get high, for instance, a local landlord named Christopher Guzzardo is reminiscing about the bad old days. What cleaned up Bushwick, according to Guzzardo, who owns several buildings in the neighborhood, was forceful policing. "They had klieg lights, helicopters, mounted police," remembers Guzzardo. "It was like a movie."

No question, law enforcement on all levels was tough on crack. Police Tactical Narcotics Teams made repeated sweeps of big crack neighborhoods, filling van after van with users and sellers. In 1986, then--U.S. attorney Giuliani and Senator Al D'Amato dressed up as Hell's Angels and staged an undercover buy in Washington Heights to highlight the crack problem. Two years later, a federal law reduced the amount of crack required for a five-to 25-year sentence. By 1989, almost half of all felony arrests in the city were crack-related. Mandatory minimum sentence laws for crack-related crimes meant that most of these arrestees--first time and repeat offenders alike--were sent to prison.

But while tough sentencing laws were effective in filling the prisons, drug experts say they had little to do with crack's decline. In fact, those imprisoned on crack charges were more likely to be arrested again than those given probation, according to a recent study of drug users and sellers in Manhattan. Even worse, some scholars say, because dealers didn't want to risk employing those who could be tried as adults, they brought kids as young as seven and eight into the dangerous crack economy. "The extreme penalties led to mid-level crack dealers using children, and that got a lot of teenagers using crack," explains drug researcher Don Des Jarlais. And that, in turn, led to the murders and violence that has come to be associated with the drug. "If the punishment hadn't been so extreme, you wouldn't have so much youth violence."

So if the war on drugs didn't stamp out crack--and even made a bigger mess where the drug left off--why is crack receding to whatever extent it is? Experts say the answer lies in who has stopped using it--and who hasn't. The average age of those still smoking crack has increased over the past 10 years, with the largest group of users now in their thirties. Thus the "little brother theory": kids who have seen their older relatives and friends messed up by crack decide against using it themselves. "Crack is the lowest rung on the nasty-dirty ladder now," says John Galea, who runs the Street Studies Unit for the state's Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. "Kids just don't think it's cool anymore. Even heroin addicts look down on crackheads now."

Some researchers say the little brother effect points to the beginning of the end for crack. But they also say that crack would be on the decline with or without its bad reputation, simply because most drugs enjoy only a limited heyday. Illegal drug fads typically go from incubation to plateau to decline over a period of years (though some, like heroin, will go through the process many times, resurging in popularity as their bad reps fade from memory).

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people smoke crack now--some estimates are criticized as too high, and others too low. The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that less than 1 per cent of the entire population currently uses cocaine--but it bases those figures on telephone surveys that don't reach homeless and phoneless users, like most everyone who frequents the trailer.

Whatever the true amount of the crack trade, its nature is clearly changing. These days sellers are more likely to operate out of apartments and bodegas than from street corners. As a result, it's now difficult to buy if you don't have a connection, according to Ric Curtis, an ethnographer who has studied New York's drug trade for a decade. Trade is also becoming concentrated in fewer neighborhoods. "It's like squeezing a tube of toothpaste," says Curtis. "When [the police] cracked down in Flatbush and Crown Heights, Bushwick, Brownsville, and Bed-Stuy began to get worse. Everyone who was still a crackhead swarmed to those areas." And while many crack hotspots of the '80s have been bricked over, bulldozed, and rebuilt, others like the trailer have sprung up.

Drug treatment counselors have also noticed a shift in their clients. Crack users now going for help have been on the drug longer, according to Chris Policano of Phoenix House. The observation runs counter to the early image of crack use: that people were instantly addicted, their lives immediately spun into chaos. While many crack users do lose control of their lives, it's now clear that crack is no more instantly addicting than powder cocaine or even marijuana. Most people who try it don't even continue to use it. And one-third of those who do don't go on to use it every day.

Treatment providers also report a greater concentration of crack use. "Now you find one or two people per family on it," says Sydney Moshette, director of the Reality House out-patient drug treatment program in Harlem. Moshette disagrees with the emphasis of the government response to crack. "It's wrong--and expensive," says Moshette. "The way to reduce use is to increase the quality of life of people living in poverty. It's not through punishment." In the meantime, says Moshette, "crack is still out there where people are vulnerable. And it will be for a long while."

Back in the trailer, Marie struggles with the complex question of the drug's appeal. "It's about dreams," she says after taking a hit. "It's like you're buying a dream. It's good and it's bad. I can't explain."

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