THE WAR ON DRUGS IS RACIST: EXPLORING THE USA’S CRACK COCAINE EPIDEMIC

By Eve Lacroix

John Ehrlichman, an aide to President Richard Nixon, has confirmed what black activists and drug policy reformists have known for decades: the War on Drugs is not only a failure, but it is also a racist and controlling political tool.

In a 1994 interview with journalist and drug reformist Dan Baum during his incarceration for his role in Watergate, Ehrlichman admitted the following:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

So how did this anti-drug campaign come into being? In 1971, President Richard Nixon made a special address to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control in which he described drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” He declared a War on Drugs, focusing on legal and military intervention on drug users, traffickers and dealers with the aim to prohibit illegal drug trade. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was in continuity with this concept, focusing on police and military action against drug trafficking. Indeed, he declared drug trafficking a threat to national security by signing a National Security Decision Directive. The U.S. Department of Defence was then involved in anti-drug directive, particularly on the Mexico-U.S.A. border.1

So how did this anti-drug campaign come into being?

The American communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs were crack cocaine users. “Crack cocaine literally exploded on the drug scene during 1986 and was attested to by street surveillance, emergency-room visits, and arrest records,”2 according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a U.S federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Justice, tasked with combatting drug smuggling and use within the United States. But today, statistics are largely disputed as being inaccurate and in reality very low. Crack cocaine was a problem almost exclusively in specific black, inner-city communities such as Harlem.

Crack_street_dosage

© Wikipedia.com

Despite the more recent statistical denial by scholars, it is widely believed that the United States of America experienced a “crack cocaine epidemic” in the 1980s and 1990s. An interesting aspect of the 1980s and 1990s crack cocaine “epidemic” is its incessant media coverage. In 1982, about one thousand print articles mentioned crack: After Three Years, the Crack Plague in New York Grows Worse, May 10, 1989; Crack Spreads Fear and Frustration, Overwhelming Hospitals, October 1, 1989. The next day, an article entitled The Spreading Web of Crack appeared.2 One documentary was named High on Crack Street: Lives Lost in Lowell (1995). All these examples share an emotional lexicon with the words and expressions “overwhelming” and “gripping” and “lives lost.” The portrayal is breathless, emotional, and hopeless. It is nicknamed “Crack Hysteria.”4

Reflecting on the history of their communities, black scholars Beverley Xaviera Watkins and Mindy Thompson Fullilove describe the myriad of social and health effects the crack cocaine epidemic had on Harlem. They write:

Lives were lost as a result of crack use and crack-related violence. In the course of crack use, many addicts contracted and died from HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. The adverse effects of the crack epidemic included increases in rates of sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory conditions, and psychological problems. The epidemic also caused social disruption that undermined the community fabric and, in turn, further aggravated health.”2

Between 1989 and 1990, the New York State Health Systems Agency’s zip code-level data on hospital admissions found that “the five Harlem and East Harlem zip codes were ranked among the ‘top ten’ (out of a total of 168 citywide) with respect to substance-abuse admissions; three of the five were ranked among the highest ten with respect to hospital admissions for psychosis (much of which was drug related); and two of the five were ranked among the top ten with respect to HIV and cirrhosis admissions.”2 It seems clear that the crack epidemic was primarily affected black, poor, inner-city communities.

The lack of opportunities available for poor, inner-city black men and women undoubtedly contribute to drug addiction.

The lack of opportunities available for poor, inner-city black men and women undoubtedly contribute to drug addiction. Indeed, “The crack smokers were socially and economically disenfranchised (…) more than two thirds supported themselves principally by means of public assistance or illegal activities. Sixty-three percent lived on less than $500 per month, and almost 20 percent were living on the streets. One third had been incarcerated in the previous 12 months.”7  For some of this population, crack-smoking proved to be a release from their harsh day-to-day lives. For others, they rightfully saw dealing as a lucrative career, when so many other professional options were denied to them.


[1] BOULLOUSA, Carmen, WALLACE, Mike, A Narco History: How The United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War”, OR Books, United States, 2015. Print. All future references will conform to this edition, and will be shortened to “A Narco History.” Quote page 41.

[2] XAVIERA WATKINS, Beverley, THOMPSON FULLILOVE, Mindy, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience, edited by Manning Marable, essay: ‘Crack Cocaine and Harlem’s Health,’ Columbia University Press, New York, 2000. Print.

[3] FAIRMAN COOPER, Edith, The Emergence of Crack Cocaine Abuse, Novinka Books, New York, 2002. Print.

[4] The New England Journal of Medicine, Special Article, Intersecting Epidemics— Crack Cocaine Use and HIV Infection Among Inner-City Young Adults, 331, No. 21, Nov. 24 1994, Copyright printed by Massachusetts Medical Society. Print. Quotes pages 1423-1424

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