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.

As early as 1981, reports of crack were appearing in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Miami, Houston, and in the Caribbean. By 1985, cocaine-related hospital emergencies rose by 12 percent, from 23,500 to 26,300. However in 1986, these incidents increased 110 percent, from 26,300 to 55,200. Around 1984, powder cocaine was available on the street at an average of 55 percent purity for $100 per gram (equivalent to $230 in 2016), and crack was sold at average purity levels of 80+ percent for the same price.

Because of the illegal nature of the drug, there were no legal avenues to protect profits from it, no antitrust laws to prevent monopolies from forming, and no way for persons involved in the trade to protect themselves from encroaching predators, other than violent recourse. Miniature arms races borne of this mentality resulted in the proliferation of firearms — both legal and illegal — in the run-down residential areas that bore the brunt in the form of the deaths of hundreds of innocent lives.

Bystanders were gunned down as indiscriminately as combatants. Gangs, already a prevalent problem at least in the LA communities where the epidemic first began, grew in size and strength, both out of protective posture and to ensure that hostile takeovers of prime market territory could be implemented. Between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 more than doubled, and the homicide rate for black males aged 18 to 24 increased nearly as much.

This all resulted in even more militarized policing, forces arming up with more assault weapons and surplus armament from US military branches, and tactical training from special forces being used to “pacify” outbreaks of violence and raid suspected stash houses with battering rams, shotguns, body armor and armored personnel carriers. Of course, the residents of these places did not see a defending force. They saw an occupying army, further stirring up longstanding resentments between citizens and abusive police.

The federal government responded even more harshly, issuing a discriminatory “100 to 1” decree for the possession or trafficking of crack versus the penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine; this stood for nearly 3 decades, until 2010, when the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity to 18:1. Someone convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in federal prison, compared to the sentence for powder cocaine. In 1996, approximately 60% of inmates incarcerated in the US were sentenced on drug charges.

The hypocrisy is stunning; departing from racialized images of crack users, data from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that people reporting cocaine use in 1991 were 75% white; 15% black, and 10% Hispanic. People who admitted to using crack were 52% white, 38% black, and 10% Hispanic. Comparing that to US Sentencing Commission data showing 79% of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders were black, 10% were Hispanic, and only 10% were white, only lends credence to the contention that mandatory sentencing laws were racially biased and fundamentally flawed.

However, despite all the evidence to the contrary, America insisted on continuing its inane, pointless “War On Drugs,” which has resulted in little but the highest incarceration rate per capita of any industrialized nation, and countless stories of broken homes and destroyed communities which only continue the cycle of hopelessness, poverty, and desperation that cause people to turn to selling or using drugs in the first place. Still, the human cost has not been counted, because for every story recollected to public consciousness, hundreds more go untold. While the epidemic itself is over, new ones have sprung up to take its place; in particular, America now faces the same moral quandary over addictive opioids.

However, the face of this crisis looks vastly different; this time it’s the white, rural members of society in the spotlight, and the coverage has accordingly evolved as well. Instead of a hysterical panic and insistence on law-and-order crackdowns, politicians are pleading for understanding and treatment. Decriminalization efforts are on the rise, but far too late to benefit any of the thousands of incarcerated Black men who could have used a helping and a committed, caring counselor. Slowly, but surely America is learning from its past mistakes, but has yet to come to terms with the full effects of them. The full story still needs to be told.

Snowfall premieres Wednesday, July 5 at 10PM on FX.