Popular perceptions of drugs and alcohol are fluid and in many cases highly volatile. What we think about drugs and addiction, “very much depends on who is addicted.” This assertion leveled by David Courtwright is amongst drug scholars, a matter of consensus. The public and government response to crack, as well as the drug’s enduring stigma, have much to do with society’s fears and fantasies of poor nonwhites and urban districts. It is telling that in her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, singer Whitney Houston vociferously disavowed previous crack use. When Sawyer read from a press clipping implying said use, Houston grew indignant reminding viewers that “crack is cheap”. Continuing, Houston cited her wealth and status. She “made too much money to smoke crack.” In the same interview, Houston admitted to the abuse of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, prescription drugs, and implied past struggles with eating disorders. However, Houston
would not allow her public image to be stained by the triumvirate of blackness, poverty, and crack. Borrowing from Keith Haring’s mural and a long-standing cultural meme, Houston concluded dismissively, “crack is wack.”
Houston’s denial was motivated by the class and racial politics of cocaine use. To put it another way, crack is wack because it’s perceived to be a drug dominated by poor, black users. News accounts portrayed it as an almost exclusively black drug, as opposed to its upscale chemical cousin, cocaine. From the perspective of drug warriors like William Bennett, one might argue that Hoston’s interview represents the fruits of nearly two decades of anti-crack media assaults. In this respect, the invisible hand of culture may appear to have done the good work of categorizing crack as a vice of disrepute. The War on Drugs had succeeded in driving down demand for crack as the drug became increasingly stigmatized in popular culture and on the street corner. But what of other drugs? Might addicts and corner boys have turned to other less stigmatized drugs as a crutch? If so, all Houston’s denial and the broader demise of crack represents is a another chapter in the grand saga of wack-a-mole drug enforcement.
In fact, shortly after Houston’s death, former Drug Czar William Bennett penned an op-ed for CNN.com entitled, “Legalizing Drugs Won’t Prevent Abuse.” In his self-aggrandizing revision of history, Bennett argues that “in the 1980s and ’90s, the U.S. beat back the cocaine and heroin epidemics, not by legalization or decriminalization, but by tough law enforcement, strong prevention and education programs and public outcry.” All it took was the deterrent of enhanced punishment and Nancy Reagan expanding youth vocabulary by introducing the word “no.” Perhaps though, there are alternate explanations. Perhaps the streets stigmatized crack independently of national campaigns seeking to do the same. Perhaps crack carried cultural baggage well before drug warriors began publicly decrying the drug in neighborhoods where it had already begun to take hold. Perhaps too, we did not permanently beat back epidemics of cocaine, and felt more acutely today, heroin.
Ethnography and studies in criminology from the 1980s offer us a glimpse into life on the corner before our national response to crack. In a wide variety of studies by scholars like Bruce Johnson, Philippe Bourgois, and Terry Williams it is easy to see that crack had already been stigmatized by both local communities and sellers by 1986–conspicuously before the national response to crack. Take for example the field work of Terry Williams from 1982 to 1986 in The Cocaine Kids: The Inside Story of a Teenage Drug Ring. In addition to cash money and weight, the only currency for a corner boy is accrued trust. A surefire way to lose the trust of your superiors and the broader community was to use crack openly. In short, selling crack was good for business while using crack could be quite the opposite: “the use of crack is generally frowned upon: those who snort are thought to have more control and discipline than those who smoke crack or freebase. Most dealers see crack users as obsessive consumers who cannot take care of business; crack users, they say, tend to become agitated, quickly lose control and concentration, and take one dose after another at the expense of everything else. Snorters, however, can use the drug and still take care of business.”
Despite the flawed logic of the streets, we can see the various ways in which crack had already become especially stigmatized. In fact, the desire of some sellers to obscure their crack habit may well have led to the modern-day blunt. In myriad period ethnography young men take to smoking “wulla joints,” marijuana laced with ready rock, rolled into a cigar wrapper. For some, this was a way of disguising their use, or in other cases, weaning themselves off of crack without sacrificing their public reputation. It is clear crack use had a social cost well before crack became a political football for the War on Drugs. In another passage from Terry Williams, one dealer starts to worry about his girlfriend after she develops an affection for crack: “It’s been three days–I’m afraid she’s on the pipe, and that shit’s bad news… she used to sniff only a little bit, but now she has no discipline.” By the mid-1980s–not 1990s after Bennett’s reign–those in the know already had reason to move on from crack: “Crack trade, in short, had become a definite turnoff, and the market was changing from young white buyers from New Jersey to an increasingly sleazy crowd who begged for a hit.”
When asked about the period, a former youth of the Crack Era named Marc from South Jamaica Queens replied: “We were the first generation to see what this shit was really about. For us, it was completely off-limits, and it is to this day. We were like ‘smoking that shit? Are you crazy?'” A local mother reinforced his sentiment: “These children have seen their parents called crack-heads, they’ve seen the devastation, and they don’t want any part of it. For them, it’s heavy, heavy marijuana smoking.” Before the the War on Drugs tried to steer the nation’s youth away from crack, the streets had already moved on.