Academic journal article Social Justice

Crack in the Rearview Mirror: Deconstructing Drug War Mythology

Academic journal article Social Justice

Crack in the Rearview Mirror: Deconstructing Drug War Mythology

Article excerpt

The abuse of tea has taken on the characteristics of a plague. It is not only confined to men, but has even spread to women and children. The situation is becoming very dangerous. Tea abuse ... takes the form of an imperious and irresistible craving.

--a Tunisian physician in the 1930s, commenting on the effects of tea when it first arrived in his country. Cited in The Economist (August 8, 2002).

IN THE LATE 1970s, CRACK FIRST CAME ON THE SCENE IN THE FORM OF COCAINE freebasing. Many of its users were stockbrokers and investment bankers, rock stars, Hollywood types, and a few pro athletes. Some of them began to get into trouble with this form of cocaine use, showing up in hospital emergency rooms and police stations. Congress passed new laws to extend health insurance coverage to include drug treatment. The treatment industry expanded the number of beds available.

In the mid-1980s, crack use spread into America's inner cities among impoverished African Americans and Latinos. Some of them began to get into trouble with this form of cocaine use, showing up in hospital emergency rooms and police stations. Congress passed new laws to extend the length of criminal sentences for crack offenses. The prison industry expanded the number of cells available.

The new laws against crack helped to drive the most massive wave of imprisonment in the history of the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995: Table 1.5). The number of persons incarcerated increased each year from 1986 through 2000, helping to triple the prison population and giving the U.S. the highest rate of incarceration of any modern democracy. The number of drug offenders in prison grew eightfold, from about 50,000 in the early Reagan years to about 400,000 at the start of the second Bush administration. This bulging prison population was disproportionately comprised of poor people of color, most of whom had not committed violent crimes (Irwin and Austin, 1994; Parenti, 1999; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001).

Politicians typically justified their harsh crack-era laws in terms of the need to deter people from using and selling crack. But in the context of persistently high unemployment and crushing poverty in the inner cities, imprisoning large numbers of people had the paradoxical effect of increasing the total number of youth involved in the illicit drug economy. One person's arrest was another's job opportunity. Meanwhile, even after years of unprecedented imprisonment, hard-core drug abuse, overdose deaths, and the spread of AIDS drag on unabated (Treaster, 1992; SAMHSA, 2001).

A reasonable person might infer from the above facts that politicians, the media, and the drug-control complex conspired to repress the so-called urban underclass. Many people in the African American and Latino communities have found it difficult to avoid this conclusion. No one who honestly ponders the state of race relations or the level and pattern of economic inequality in the U.S. can doubt that it is at least plausible. Indeed, even after the prevalence of crack use had declined sharply in the early 1990s (Johnston et al., 2003: Table 5.2), the number of drug arrests of impoverished inner-city youth continued to rise--fewer and fewer for crack, more and more for marijuana (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001). At the very least, it is now clear that the laws rushed through Congress during the crack scare of the late 1980s had political purposes and racist consequences (see Beckett, 1997).

Our critique of the crack scare draws upon a tradition begun by Alfred Lindesmith and Howard Becker. Lindesmith (1947, 1965) studied opiate addicts ethnographically. His deeply sociological account of the process of addiction took the addict's point of view and called attention to unhelpful role played by criminalization. Such heresies put him on the enemies list of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, with whom he battled for many years. …

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