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Essay: The crack epidemic of the 1980's

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  • Published: 23 January 2019*
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The 1980’s is considered one of the greatest decades of all time. It was a time of big hair, broad shoulders, great music and movies, crazy, bright neon colors, and milestones. The 1980’s was also a time of increased drug use. The crack epidemic is the period of time in the 80’s when the use of crack cocaine, or crack for short, was at an all time high due to its affordability and rapid affects. This epidemic tore apart friendships, families and many other relationships and devastated many cities. It was a point of increased addictions, emergency room visits and close calls, drug related crimes and death. The crack epidemic of the 1980’s brought many cities with a predominantly minority population to their knees.
Until the 1960’s very few people knew about the existence of cocaine. Cocaine was a huge cash crop for many South American Countries, mainly in Colombia. As the desire for the drug increased, Colombian trafficking organizations such as the Medellín cartel instituted a distribution system that imported cocaine from South America into the U.S. market using sea and air routes via the Caribbean and the South Florida coast. (https://www.britannica.com/topic/crack-epidemic) . Crack cocaine first appeared in Miami, where immigrants taught young locals how to convert powder cocaine to crack cocaine. With their newfound knowledge, they introduced the business of producing and selling crack cocaine to other major cities in the United States including New York City, Los Angeles and Detroit.

Crack cocaine is one of the most potent drugs of abuse. (cite). It is between seventy five to one hundred percent pure and stronger than regular powder cocaine. Crack’s made by converting cocaine hydrochloride, a white crystallized powder, into smaller crystals or “rocks” that can be smoked, either in pipes or tobacco wraps. This conversion is done by boiling the cocaine with ammonia or baking soda and water which then deposits the cocaine crystals. The drug was dubbed crack after the crackling noise it produces when being smoked.

Crack became so popular because unlike cocaine, often called a “rich man’s drug”, crack was cheaper and easier to produce and sold at lower prices, making it more easily accessible. Plastic vials containing one to three rocks of crack were often sold for as little as five to twenty dollars. Smoking crack became preferred over snorting cocaine because the high came quicker and it was more intense, however it was extremely short and left the user craving more. The effects of smoking is produced in a matter of seconds, whereas snorting it takes about one to three minutes for the drug to kick in. Smoking crack allows it to reach the brain faster and produces an intense, desired high that lasts about fifteen minutes. As soon at the high wears off, the user is left with depression as they want more and more. The high reached by cocaine lasts about twenty to thirty minutes. Addiction develops faster when smoked rather than snorted, therefore a user is more likely to become addicted after his or her first time trying crack rather than cocaine. The accessibility and effects of crack caused an increase of 1.6 million people addicted to crack cocaine between 1982 through 1985. Long term effects of crack cocaine include paranoia, hallucinations, seizures, damage to the heart, liver and kidneys, high blood pressure and weight loss.

Los Angeles, California was one of the cities in the United States that got hit the hardest by the crack epidemic. It was the first place where crack cocaine gained media attention. LA was called “the world’s largest market for cocaine,” this made it the unofficial crack capital of the United States. The city became a setting for extra- militant police enforcement as crack began to penetrate the black and latino communities. The LAPD made super aggressive plans of action in attempts to rid the city of crack which in turn sparked the LA drug wars and riots. The LAPD used military tanks to bust down the doors of crack houses. It was noted that tanks were never pulled out in white neighborhoods, only in poor, predominantly black or latino ones. The tank became a symbol of the fear tactics used by the police to remove crack from the streets. During the time of the epidemic in Los Angeles, the police reported a violent crime around every eight minutes. The police became so preoccupied with these crimes that much larger crimes went unnoticed.

Due to the cheap price of crack cocaine, it quickly spread to poorer areas of the city such as projects and low income housing. In these poor neighborhoods, young people began to realize that a lot of money can be made by selling crack cocaine. Dealers would come home with an average of three to five hundred dollars a day, which is a whole lot in certain parts of the city. The epidemic also brought more gang violence to the streets. The two major gangs that fought for control over LA’s drug trade was the Bloods and Crips. The two rival gangs began selling crack to spread their influence to other American cities.

Crack arrived in New York City from Los Angeles in the early eighties before many people knew about it. Soon crack was all the rave, anyone could afford it. New York City suffered from violent crime after violent crime during this time. In 1988 nearly half of the 1,896 homicides were drug, mainly crack, related. In May 1986, the anti-crack unit of the police was opened. Officers kept a chart of crack dealer arrests, and in June of 1988, it showed that 13,200 dealers had been arrested. It was noted that the crack epidemic helped shaped policing strategies as the NYPD was not prepared for the crime that came with crack. Law enforcement had little to no luck eradicating crack from the streets, “Police finally gave up the citywide fight against street-level operations and instead adopted a new strategy of driving sellers and users out of specific neighborhoods.” Police realized that more and more dealers were coming up and they had to take bigger measures to stop the epidemic.

No part of the city was safe from crack, however some areas had it worse than others. The use of crack affected families all across the poorest neighborhoods. A record of 133 children died of abuse and neglect and some five thousand babies were born with severe defects caused by their mothers being crack addicts. “Crack literally changed the entire face of the city. I know of no other drug that caused the social change that crack caused,” said by former New York city D.E.A. agent, Robert Strutman, to PBS frontline in 2000.

Another city hit hard by the arrival of crack was Detroit, Michigan. Detroit routinely ranks as one of the highest cities in cocaine related deaths since the 1980’s. “Crack dealers with Detroit connections have turned up in communities of all sizes throughout Michigan, and in scores of small- to medium-sized cities in Ohio and Indiana.” In 1987 about eighty percent of the drug traffic in Ohio was controlled by people from Detroit. Police in Cleveland, Ohio blamed Detroit dealers for crack spreading to their city. Ohio police blamed the fact that Detroit law enforcement had heightened, at one point the city averaged seven raids and twenty six arrests daily. They also blamed the abundance of crack in the streets of Detroit causing the price of street crack to reduce resulting dealers seeking new markets.

The head of the Detroit drug scene in the mid eighties were the Chambers Brothers who moved to Detroit from Arkansas. Theirs is a true story of rags to riches. Upon their arrival they built one of the biggest drug empires in the United States, controlling half the crack houses in Detroit and making nearly $1 million a week. They hired hundreds of people to maintain their multimillion dollar business of drug sales. “Although these organizations were run by adults, they used juveniles-usually teenagers, but some reportedly as young as 10-to handle the street transactions.” The brothers became so infamous that Bill Clinton mention them at the 1988 Democratic Convention, as a testament to America’s lack of opportunity for poor, driven young people. The Chambers brothers were arrested in 1988 following the murder of one of their employees Leonard Ruffin.

Street gangs in Chicago, Illinois tried their best to keep crack out of the streets in fear of losing control of the cities drug trade for most of the 1980’s. However crack’s arrival in the late eighties, early nineties was inevitable and soon gangs were fighting over claimed territory. “Unlike drug distribution networks in New York, Washington and other cities with fairly diffuse trafficking systems, the network in Chicago has traditionally been tightly run by a
group of major st
reet gangs who enjoyed a longstanding monopoly on drug sales and were not inclined to introduce or — allow anyone else to introduce — a volatile new product they could not easily control” These tight knit drug networks and street gangs left no room for for newcomers to bring crack to the market. Rival dealers resorted to violence to make room for themselves on the market. “There is more money changing hands. Dealers want to get in on the market and want to get a bigger share of the market. But rather than cutting prices and putting out a better product, they kill each other,” said Ronald Allen, a professor of law at Northwestern University. Due to this increase in violence many residents wouldn’t step foot outside at night. Locals became so frightened that sometimes they didn’t report what they saw.

During the span of the crack epidemic, crime and violence was at an all time high in affected cities and neighborhoods. In 1988 in New York City domestic violence reports went up twenty- four percent. Crimes like car theft and burglary increased during this period of time. “In the South Bronx, for instance, violent crime was 44% higher in 1988 than in 1985.” (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/crack-scourge-swept-new-york-city-article-1.813844)

The crack epidemic ate away at the public health of the affected communities, most of which were poor. One of crack’s immense effects on health is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/ AIDS. In 1988 the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that crack use and using sex as payment for the drug largely contributed to the increase of STDs and that crack users were much more likely to contract these diseases. The adverse health effects of the crack epidemic included increases in rates of sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory conditions, and psychological problems. (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol1no1/vol1num1art4.pdf). Crack cocaine interferes with the functions of the central nervous system. Someone who’s addicted to crack can be prone to seizures and a study found that drug users are six times more likely to suffer a stroke that could result in death or a lifetime disability. In addition, it was reported that drug users have been found to have high rates of mental disorders including depression and schizophrenia. Pregnant women on crack often received little to no prenatal care and placed their own health along with the health of the fetus at risk. Infants born to crack using mothers became known as crack babies. These babies are more likely to have medical complications and longer hospital stays after delivery.

The crack epidemic sparked new federal acts, harsh policies and new regulations on incarceration. “The governmental response focused almost exclusively on interdiction and eradication of the drug supply.” During the time of the crack epidemic Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States. Early on, his administration began to concentrate on what is now known as the “war on drugs.” “The idea of the War on Drugs was grounded in deterrence theory, whereby the implementation of legislation and harsher penalties would deter or discourage the use of drugs.” (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol1no1/vol1num1art4.pdf) This was meant to disguise drug trafficking and ultimately end the epidemic. The steps taken to end the epidemic include the passing of the federal anti- drug laws in 1986-1989, increased anti- drug funding and the expansion of prison and police programs. Out of the $1.7 billion raised from the anti-drug funds about eighty six percent went to law enforcement, prisons and interdiction, while fourteen percent went to treatment, education and prevention. In 1986 Ronald and Nancy Reagan addressed the epidemic with their famous “Just say no” speech. The legislation of 1988 created two new government offices, one was responsible for the annual national drug control strategy and the other focused on treatment and prevention. The first office was called the White House Office of National Drug Policy and the other The Office of Substance Abuse Prevention. There was alway two sides to anti- drug laws: eradication and treatment. The crack epidemic was one of the top social issues throughout the entirety of the 1980’s. “Fueled by the media, political campaigns, and the national elections, illicit drug use and associated crime, in particular crack- related crime, dominated public policy debate between 1986 and 1990.”

The war on drugs resulted in a huge increase of incarceration. This “war” focused mainly on small drug dealers, who were typically poor young black males from the inner city. “The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration.” (http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/brief-history-drug-war) The jail population nearly doubled. “One in every four African American males aged 20 to 29 was either incarcerated or on probation or parole by 1989” this is why the United States had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Harsher penalties were introduced in hopes of deterring people from using and selling crack. The one hundred to one ratio between powder and crack cocaine became a guideline for a minimal punishment. The federal law warranted a ten year sentence for anyone caught with fifty grams of crack. For equal punishment, an offender had to be caught with five thousand grams of powder cocaine, enough to fill a briefcase. Now sentencing for crack possession is much more lenient. “Congress compounded the inequity by making crack cocaine the only drug that carries a mandatory minimum sentence for possession, even for first-time offenders.” Looking back, it’s said that imposing way tougher punishments on those convicted of selling crack cocaine over those caught selling powder cocaine was a huge injustice on Congress’ part. This is so because crack cocaine was mostly found in regions with a poorer, minority population whereas the powder form was more popular among the “rich men.”

During the crack epidemic so many young people wasted or lost their lives over crack. “Lives were cut short and a wealth of potential was lost on a generation of African- American youths.” The focus was primarily on punishing drug users and dealers rather than their treatment. Although there were government programs meant for treatment and rehabilitation, many law enforcement officials and politicians immediate thoughts were prison. This violent approach

The crack epidemic, home to to the popular 1986 saying, “Crack is Wack,” was a dangerous time in America. Drug trafficking networks continued to flourish and gangs continued to fight as law enforcement tried to eradicate crack from the streets. The areas of the United States who got hit the hardest were all minority, low income inner cities. Eventually by the early to mid nineties, crack had burned itself out, crackheads became looked at as losers and crack became uncool. Luckily the epidemic has ended.

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