• U.S.

Crack: A cheap and deadly cocaine is a fast-spreading menace

8 minute read
Jacob V. Lamar Jr.

In New York City, the sleazy dealers peddling dope in Manhattan’s Washington Heights call it “crack.” In the south central part of Los Angeles, the desperate addicts chasing an ever more elusive high know it as “rock.” On both coasts, and in Chicago, Detroit and other cities throughout the U.S., the drug by either name is an inexpensive yet highly potent, highly addictive form of cocaine that is rapidly becoming a scourge. Pushers sell pellet-size “rocks” in tiny plastic vials for as little as $10. Smoked rather than snorted, a single hit of crack provides an intense, wrenching rush in a matter of seconds. “It goes straight to the head. It’s immediate speed,” says a former addict. “It feels like the top of your head is going to blow off.”

In minutes the flash high is followed by a crashing low that can leave a user craving another hit. But that evanescent electric jolt, priced so that almost anyone can afford it, has made crack the drug of the moment. The National Cocaine Hotline (1-800-COCAINE) estimates that 1 million Americans in 25 states around the country have tried crack. From January through April, while New York City police seizures of marijuana fell off 92% from the year before and heroin seizures fell off 88%, cocaine seizures rose 41%. Crack busts already constitute 55% of all cocaine arrests in New York. In Los Angeles, where the drug was introduced around 1981, more than two-thirds of the 2,500 coke arrests made this year have involved rock.

The rapid spread of crack leads some experts to fear a new wave of cocaine addiction in the U.S., possibly as serious as the devastation wrought by the heroin wave of the late 1960s. Says Dr. Arnold Washton, director of research for the National Cocaine Hotline: “Last May I had never heard of crack. Today we get nearly 700 to 900 calls a day from people having problems with the drug.” Crack is more addictive than any other form of cocaine, says Washton. “It’s the dealer’s dream and the user’s nightmare.”

The drug is most popular in the inner city; a recent survey by the cocaine hotline indicates that most abusers are men between the ages of 20 and 35, and that more than half the nation’s so-called crackheads are black. In some instances, say experts, heroin addicts have turned to the seemingly safer method of smoking cocaine because of the spread of AIDS among needle-using junkies; some of the seedy, smoke-filled “base houses” where crack is sold and consumed were formerly shooting galleries for heroin. But crack’s low cost has also made it particularly appealing to adolescents. Kids as young as twelve have called the coke hotline in desperation.

Cocaine addiction is nothing new in the U.S. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some 5 million Americans are regular coke users. But the traditional, sniffed “nose candy” is no match for crack. NIDA estimates that an addiction to regular coke develops after three to four years, while crack abusers are usually hooked after only six to ten weeks. A snort of classic coke penetrates the mucous membranes slowly, circulating to the brain in about eight minutes and producing a high, much milder than crack’s, that lasts for 20 minutes or so. Crack is absorbed rapidly through the lungs and hits the brain within seconds in a dangerous, concentrated form.

Using crack is easier and less complicated than free-basing cocaine. Since powdered coke cannot be ignited and smoked, free-basers wash a cocaine base with ether to clean out impurities. Once dried, the residue is heated with a torch and smoked. The extreme volatility of ether makes this a dangerous way to get high–as the general public learned in 1980 when Comedian Richard Pryor set himself on fire while free-basing.

By contrast, the process used to make crack is simple. Ordinary coke is mixed with baking soda and water into a solution that is then heated in a pot. This material, somewhat purer and more concentrated than regular cocaine, is dried and broken into tiny chunks that dealers sell as crack rocks. The little pellets are usually smoked in glass pipes. “Crack is a whole new ball game,” says James Hall, executive director of Up Front, a Miami drug-information center. “It’s an extremely compulsive drug, much more so than regular cocaine. The rush is so intense and the crash so powerful that it keeps users –even first-time users– focused on nothing but their next hit.” Police in Florida have noticed increases in burglaries and armed robberies in areas where crack is sold. Says Captain Robert Lamont of the Dade County police narcotics division: “These are the crimes that can generate enough cash for a , quick fix. Then it’s off to the streets to raise more cash.” But robbery is not the only price society pays for crack; the state of near psychosis that heavy cocaine use produces leads easily to violence. New York City police have attributed a recent rash of brutal crimes to young addicts virtually deranged by the new drug. According to Inspector William Molinari of the N.Y.P.D.’s narcotics division, there have been seven crack-related homicides in the city this month. In one instance, police say, Victor Aponte, a 16-year-old addict, confessed to stabbing his mother to death after she caught him smoking crack.

Some cities around the country are beginning to wage all-out assaults on the crack trade. Last week, after local and federal authorities nabbed 44 suspected dealers, New York City Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward announced the formation of a special anti-crack unit, composed of 101 veteran undercover officers. The unit is the first New York police squad ever devoted to fighting a single drug. Miami’s 16-month-old street narcotics operation busted seven crack base houses, arrested 485 dopers and confiscated more than $8,000 in cash during a six-week period this spring.

But crackdowns have not slowed the spread of the drug. In Los Angeles, raids by narcotics squads helped reduce the number of “rock houses” from 1,000 in 1984 to about 400 today. The business has merely moved to the streets. Teenage salesmen with rock hidden in their pockets–or sometimes their mouths–now loiter at corners and against fences. As buyers drive by slowly in cars, a quick exchange of cash for crack can take place through an open window.

In the ghettos, the economics of crack has created a lucrative cottage industry. Organized crime has not yet taken over the trade, police believe. Instead, a small-time dealer in Los Angeles can buy an ounce of cocaine for $1,000 to $1,500. Since each ounce contains 28 grams and each gram can produce up to six rocks that he can sell for as much as $25 each, the dealer can realize a profit of around $2,700.

As local drug entrepreneurs battle it out for dominance, a hierarchy of rock cocaine is being built on violence. In lucrative rock markets like Los Angeles, most dealers’ base houses are veritable fortresses, guarded by thugs armed with pistols and sawed-off shotguns. Metal bars cover the windows; steel mesh and heavy beams are used to bar the doors. With some places reaping monthly profits of more than $20,000, dealers need such heavy security to ward off not only cops but competitors.

One rock house busted in south-central Los Angeles looked perfectly innocuous on the outside: a white stucco duplex with a neatly trimmed lawn. Inside, a hallway leading to a bedroom had been walled off. Behind the barrier, a surveillance camera was trained on customers in the living room. The drug salesman, sitting in a kitchen equipped with three telephones and a box full of cash, remained unseen behind a fortified door but was able to monitor the outer room via closed-circuit TV. Buyers spoke to the seller through an intercom. Money and drugs were passed through a tiny opening in the wall.

Some base houses serve as modern-day opium dens, where addicts not only purchase crack but rent pipes, hang out and get wasted. Most of these establishments are run-down and filthy, littered with ragged furniture, trash and graffiti. Rockheads will sometimes stay for days, spending whatever cash they have, so wired from hit after hit that they have no need for food or sleep. Women who run out of money sometimes turn into “cocaine whores,” selling themselves to anyone who will provide more crack.

“Eva” is a 16-year-old patient at New York City’s Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center who got hooked on crack two years ago. The product of a troubled middle-class family, she was already a heavy drinker and pot smoker when she was introduced to coke by her older brother, a young dope pusher. “When you take the first toke on a crack pipe, you get on top of the world,” she says.

She first started stealing from family and friends to support her habit. She soon turned to prostitution and went through two abortions before she was 16. “I didn’t give a damn about protecting myself,” she said. “I just wanted to get high. Fear of pregnancy didn’t even cross my mind when I hit the sack with someone for drugs.”

Eva’s story is becoming all too familiar in cocaine-treatment centers around the nation. In the popular imagination, cocaine has long had an almost glamorous aura about it: the champagne of drugs, a high for the upwardly mobile who use rolled-up $100 bills to snort lines of expensive white powder. Crack, by comparison, is so inexpensive that it is proving to be an equal- opportunity narcotic, one that does not discriminate among its victims.

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