The Full Story Of The 1980’s Crack Epidemic Is Still Yet To Be Told

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster /Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored…” — Jay Z, “Blue Magic”

America is fascinated by tales of the exploits of gangsters, hustlers, dealers, and killers, but America is very rarely equipped, prepared, or inclined to deal with the fallout of these elements in real life.

Today, rappers like Pusha T, 2 Chainz, Migos and Jay Z have made millions — for themselves and others — by rapping about crack cocaine. The drug’s sale, its use, and its all-consuming ubiquity in the late ’80s and early ’90s has proven to be a treasure trove for the recording industry, for Hollywood, and for cable television “journalism.”

Movies like New Jack City, Paid In Full, Menace II Society, and Fresh still influence modern day narratives about life in the “hood,” and television shows like Narcos and The Wire dramatize the effects of the drug on cities, communities, neighborhoods, and people. This Summer FX’s new series Snowfall is bringing a new narrative to the table. From executive producer John Singleton, Snowfall takes you back to 1983 to showcase the origins of crack in South Central Los Angeles and the radical impact it still has on our culture today.

In the 1980s, cocaine was a club drug, glamorized by rumors of exploits of celebrities in the Hollywood Hills of California, and the clubs of New York City, but when the supply got too high and the demand tanked, dealers turned to the age old, tried-and-true method of boosting sales: Make a stronger product.

By combining powder cocaine with baking soda, free base cocaine can be separated into a much more potent form that is smoked by the user instead of snorted or injected. This allows for quick absorption into the bloodstream, wherein the drug reaches the brain in less time, resulting in a faster, more intense high. The drug is incredibly addictive, and depending on the ratio of baking soda to powder cocaine, can stretch the original product very far, thus providing a higher profit margin on the initial investment.

It’s no wonder then that the communities hit hardest by the “crack epidemic” of the late ’80s were America’s poorest. In the 1960s, white flight from communities like South Central Los Angeles resulted in loss of employment for the remaining Black and Latino residents, who were left with few options in a world hostile to any semblance of their success. Negative policing — driven by policies formed from the lasting legacy of the 13th Amendment loophole for incarcerated felons — and the profit motives of the private prison complex, further exacerbated dire straits for vulnerable communities.

Combine all that with an underfunded education system, seemingly designed to fail kids of color throughout the city, and a situation already rife with tension and desperation, and the result was a chilling perfect environment to incubate the burgeoning crack epidemic that would soon sweep the nation with hysteria and racially-driven fears of gangs, violence, and the devastation brought about by a little white rock and a glass pipe.