Crack Cocaine: A Dark History

It’s autumn of 1984… Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” is battling it out on the pop music charts with Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen “. Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop are the highest-grossing movies in the country, and Ronald Regan defeated Walter Mondale by a 59% margin in the presidential election. And a new drug is sweeping the United States…it’s called ‘Crack Cocaine’.

Crack first made its appearance in impoverished areas of Miami, New York and Los Angeles, and its availability and wide-spread use quickly developed to epidemic proportions by the beginning of 1985. While crack is synthesized in somewhat similar fashion to freebase cocaine, part of its appeal is that some of the substances used to cut the drug (which cost virtually nothing) can successfully mimic the appearance and effect of cocaine, thereby increasing the bulk mass, leading to a much higher yield for the dealer. A former police officer once commented to me that because crack is cut so heavily, there are times when some of the actual drug that he confiscated didn’t even test positive for cocaine. Fake or ‘bunk’ crack use poses its own health problems, as the cut that is randomly used can have devastating side effects of their own. However, there can be no doubts as to the end result of crack, whatever its level of ‘purity’.

When burned, crack vaporizes at a much lower level than that of regular powder cocaine (or cocaine hydrochloride) which cannot burn. The end result is a drug that reaches the bloodstream in a mere eight seconds, and also requires repeated intakes in order to retain the high; far more than snorting cocaine. The effects range from euphoria, insomnia, to increased confidence. When the crack user takes their initial hit, the brain releases a huge amount of dopamine, which creates the feeling of euphoria. However, within 10 minutes, the dopamine levels plunge, creating an intense feeling of irritability, paranoia and depression. In extreme cases, another charming side effect can be delusional parasitosis, also known as Ekbom’s Syndrome, which is a mistaken conviction that the user’s skin is infested with parasites.  The result of this is compulsive picking of the skin, and this can be seen on the neck, face and arms of long-term users.

The only solution for most users is to acquire more of the drug, often until their finances are depleted. So what you have is a drug that is relatively cheap to manufacture, can easily be cut/disguised, used by a rapidly- addicted population that require repeated use. No wonder it became an epidemic…

There were some positive steps taken to combat the crack epidemic. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act increased penalties for crack cocaine possession and usage. It mandated a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole for possession of five grams of crack. While this may have been a step in the right direction, it really did nothing to combat street dealers, who generally carry much smaller amounts. In the end, crack continues to run rampant in epidemic proportions on our populous. Try as they might, we cannot rely on lawmakers to police crack cocaine use. It’s up to ourselves and the recovery community, through education and interdiction, to lower the demand…because there always seems to be a supply.

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