"Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed" by David Farber; Cambridge University Press (222 pages, $24.95)
Why should we pause, at this moment in America's drug history, to remember crack? That was my first thought upon picking up David Farber's head rush of a book, "Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed."
Crack was past its prime a quarter century ago. We're now apparently on the waning side of the opioid/heroin/fentanyl epidemic, the kids are hooked on Juul, and crystal meth is creeping from its rural strongholds into the city and its suburbs.
Farber, though, deals a potent mix of drug history, gangland lore and policy calamity that keeps you coming back for more. While he's unsparing in describing the racism-tinged hysteria with which government responded to crack, he doesn't sermonize, which is refreshing. And you put down "Crack" with a feeling that this exploration of a dark part of our history has given you an improved understanding of today, and maybe tomorrow.
It's well known that Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine, but you rarely hear about cocaine wine, cocaine toothache drops or Ryno's Hay Fever-n-Catarrh Remedy - the last of which was nearly pure blow. Farber, a University of Kansas history professor, makes the case that in the days before drug prohibition, doctors prescribed opium products to whites, while blacks were left to navigate the cocaine-heavy patent medicine market. Over time, cocaine became associated with African Americans, and was woven into an often-deadly mix of tropes and stereotypes.
"White authorities in the south noted, with great unease, black men's enthusiasm for cocaine," writes Mr. Farber. " ... Cocaine, they insisted, unleashed blacks' innate criminality and depraved hyper-sexuality."
By 1922, America's puritanical streak was ascendant, and most everything that gets people high was prohibited. It took 50 years for cocaine to regain its public profile, rebranded as the expensive drug of Eric Clapton, Robin Williams and Richard Pryor. From there, it was only a matter of time until some underground entrepreneur marketed the quicker and cheaper formulation known as crack.
There is no science that tells us why and when certain drugs catch on in specific populations. Farber suggests that black ghettos had, by 1980, been decimated by the flight of the black middle class, leaving concentrations of people who "were already in deep trouble of all kinds before they took their first hit."
From there, it's easy to see why the crack epidemic got so bad: "And then once these troubled people started using crack, most every kind of authority, from the police to social workers to local prosecutors, mostly made their lives worse rather than trying to help them."
There was no rush to develop antidotes or open rehab beds. Instead, as Farber puts it, "the American polity declared open season on economically disadvantaged young men of color."
Exhibit A: the famed federal law that equated a crack dealer with 10 grams of rock to a powder cocaine dealer with an entire kilo. That led to an 11-fold increase in the number of drug offenders in federal prisons, Mr. Farber writes, and the vast majority were black. Many states tried that approach. It failed. "Fiercely punitive laws aimed at crack dealers did not put much of a dent, if any, into the sales of crack, but they did result in the long-term imprisonment of economically disadvantaged black men," Farber writes.
Perhaps as damaging was the government's decision to portray drug users as members of a triumvirate of villains. "Those who use, sell and traffic in drugs must be confronted, and they must suffer consequences," William Bennett, the first national drug czar, said. People who needed help were instead going to be punished. That approach continued to dominate society's reaction to illicit drug use until attitudes started to shift at the height of the (mostly white) opioid epidemic.
Crack policy may be a downer, but the book has its guilty pleasures, especially when it takes us back to the ganglands of the 1980s and the early days of hip-hop. Like Prohibition in the 1920s, the explosive crack market, the inevitable turf wars and the government crackdown created a new breed of anti-hero, which Farber explores through ethnography and art.
While psychedelic rock focused on the user, hip-hop often explored the more complex character of the dealer: a man, typically, channeled by society into an illegal job exploiting his own community - and both richly rewarded and brutally punished for it. "With money to burn, they flexed and strained against the everyday; they willed themselves to live large, knowing that prison or death was around the corner," Farber writes. "As social bandits and murderous thugs, they grabbed their society's center stage."
There are no heroes in Farber's "Crack." There are lasting lessons on how not to handle the next drug epidemic.
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