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10 Ways the US Government Used the Crack Epidemic to Justify the War on Drugs

In 1982, when President Ronald Reagan declared a War on Drugs, recreational drug use in the U.S. was in serious decline. Reagan’s declaration of war tapped into a growing public sentiment against illegal drug use. So the declaration was more about politics than about drugs presenting an actual danger to the nation. For the constituency the Reagan administration was trying to reach, it was easy to construct African-Americans as the enemy in the War on Drugs — leading to mass incarceration that has imprisoned millions and devastated Black communities across the U.S. To sell the war, the administration created a monster: crack. And to go along with the crack monster, the government and media pushed a series of myths.

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Myth 1: Crack Is a Different Drug Than Cocaine

From the beginning of the crack scare in early 1986, politicians and the media found it useful to speak of crack as if it were an entirely new substance with unprecedented powers. This was false, as pointed out by researchers Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine. Crack was only a new form of a very old substance. Crack is cocaine that has been cooked down to a smokeable base form, but its active ingredient is entirely cocaine, a drug in use in the U.S. for over a century. Just as humans can get more drunk much faster by downing shots of vodka than by sipping wine, so can we get a more intense “rush” by smoking crack cocaine than by snorting powder cocaine. The claim that crack was a new, deeply dangerous drug allowed the media to write dramatic stories about it and politicians to scapegoat and pass punitive new laws against it — laws that punished Black people.
A crack addict sits on a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood of Porto Alegre
Myth 2: Crack Use Was a Plague
The evidence that crack was neither instantly nor inevitably addicting was available in every government survey on drug use that asked about crack from 1987 on. A survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the late 1980s to measure the prevalence of drug use among young people found that despite the hysteria about crack “killing a whole generation of our children” less than 5 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. had ever tried it, let alone gone on to use it regularly, abuse it, get addicted to it or die from it. Contrary to the confident predictions of politicians, police chiefs, drug treatment entrepreneurs and the media, crack use never spread very far outside impoverished inner-city neighborhoods.
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