Crack popped up in Miami and Los Angeles in the 1970s. The Drug Enforcement Agency didn’t pay it much mind then. It was nothing more than a different version of cocaine, the agency figured. Crack arrived in New York City in the early 1980s before most of the public had heard anything about it. And as we noted in last week’s cover story, which explored how the crack era shaped policing strategies, the NYPD was ill-prepared for the crime wave the drug would bring.
See also last week’s feature story: The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella
The department was understaffed. Budget cuts from the 1970s, when the city was almost bankrupt, had forced the NYPD to lay off nearly a third of its officers from 1975 to 1982.
Meanwhile, crack began its spread across New York. It was cheaper than cocaine. Anybody could afford it, and anybody could sell it — anybody could buy a gram of coke, chop it up, cook it, and flip it for double the money.
“So now, all of a sudden, you have got a product that is saleable to a mass new audience,” Robert Strutman, a former New York city D.E.A. agent, told PBS Frontline in 2000. “And that is what the New York drug peddlers did. They mass-merchandized cocaine.”
The media world first noticed crack in 1984, when the Los Angeles Times reported that “cocaine sales explode with $25 rocks.” According to a 1999 paper in Columbia University’s Souls journal, reporters began using the word “crack” in 1985. The earliest instance was a November 1985 story in the New York Times: “new form of cocaine, known as crack, was for sale in New York City.”
By 1986, crack was available in 28 states. Newsweek called the drug’s impact a “national crisis.”
It was around this time that authorities realized that crack hit communities with a savage force unlike any previous drug.
“Crack literally changed the entire face of the city,” Strutman told Frontline. “I know of no other drug that caused the social change that crack caused. You can’t name another drug that came close.”
It was more potent than cocaine. The high was short, just a few minutes. And for just $5 to $10, you could get it again and again. Parents became junkies. Addicts robbed and looted. Now there was more money at stake on the streets, and the dealers became protective of their territories. The barriers for entry into the business were low. There were always more dealers entering the game, trying to get in on the cash flow.
“Crack brought on a new kind of organization,” said Strutman. “With the crack organization, it started street-up…We started seeing it move downtown, and you could literally follow it block to block, going from 125th Street all the way down to Alphabet City, which is the other side of New York, the southern tip of Manhattan. From 1985 to 1987, maybe 1988, there were no real major organizations. We used to joke that we had 25,000 crack cottage industries in New York.”
More organizations meant more violence.
“Drugs have changed the complexion of crime in America,” Lee Brown, the city’s police commissioner in the early ’90s, told the Harvard Business Review in 1991. “The crack epidemic has precipitated an explosion of violent crime, unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.”
In 1986, Ronald and Nancy Reagan addressed the crack epidemic and the violence it triggered. They gave America their their “Just say no” speech. Nancy Reagan declared that the country must be “unyielding and inflexible” in its fight against crack. And the War on Drugs was underway.
Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. The new laws made the penalties for crack possession much harsher than the penalties for powder cocaine possession. For instance, five grams of crack would get you a five year prison sentence, while it would take 500 grams of cocaine to do so. Not until the Obama Administration would congress pass a bill reducing the disparity.
In 1985, there were fewer than 600,000 incarcerated people in America. By 1995, there were more than one million. The total correctional population — including those in jail, on parole, and on probation — increased from around three million in 1985 to seven million in 2005.