How The '80s Crack Cocaine "Epidemic" Really Started

Photo: Mark Davis/FX.

Around 30 years ago, the U.S. saw a rise in the use of crack cocaine that was termed the "crack epidemic." Now, FX's new show Snowfall is bringing this period of time and all of its complex issues back to the front of our consciousness — at a time when our country is in the midst of yet another drug crisis.

We know that there was a surge in the use of crack, a form of cocaine that is smoked rather than snorted, in the '80s primarily in areas of L.A., NYC, and Miami. But the true story is much more complicated than that. And the media helped fuel this into a full-blown national moral panic. However, this was all happening at a time when the budgets for many social programs (including those relating to food stamps and job training) had taken serious cuts. That means those most vulnerable to the rise in drug use were given less help to address those effects, leaving the rest of us with some deeply damaging prejudices towards these already marginalized communities.

"The period had less to do with what was in the community than what was taken out. And our unwillingness to discuss that has created a pathology around Black people and around drugs," says asha bandele, author and senior director of grants and partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Ahead, we talked to bandele about the real origins of the so-called crack "epidemic" and how fictional portrayals of that time period — along with sensationalized media reports — have historically done nothing but further societal prejudices.

What would you say are the most common misconceptions about the "crack epidemic"?

"There are many. They are all interlaced and came together in a way that was exceedingly detrimental to Black and Brown communities. Number one, we assume that Black people are the majority users of crack, and that’s not true. Nobody will close their eyes, imagine a crack user or seller, and come up with a white guy. But that is more often who that person is — it's just not who is arrested for it, targeted for it, put in jail for it, or pathologized for it.

"Number two, when we talk about what an epidemic is, we need to pull some of those numbers apart. When you look at the amount of people who smoked crack at the height of it being reported in the media, the numbers were not exceedingly huge. What you had at that time is a misnaming of a post-industrial period of depression for Black and poor communities.

This is what happens when you take away every social safety net made available to human beings.

"So it should be be called the 'Reagan epidemic' or the 'epidemic of poverty.' This is what happens when you take away every social safety net made available to human beings... Reagan dismantled all of this. So in communities that were already especially harmed, when you took away absolutely everything and the only thing left is a drug, then yes, you’ll have some harm.

"But both crack and cocaine were used on Wall Street. Why didn’t Wall Street fall apart? They had all the social safety nets built in there; you had employee assistance programs, you had all of this infrastructure designed to ensure that no matter what happens, Wall Street and its members were going to survive the extraordinary level of drug use in the '80s and '90s. But nobody cared to ensure what was going to happen in communities they already said didn’t matter."

How have the media and fictional portrayals of these issues perpetuated those misconceptions?

"[The 1986 CBS News special] 48 Hours On Crack Street was probably the worst of them. If you're going to go to an impoverished, broken community and focus on people who are also broken by this society, then you're going to see crazy stuff... But Black people participated in [perpetuating these stereotypes], too. The Sam Jackson character in the Spike Lee Joint [Jungle Fever] just looked like a wild, bug-eyed man who came in, stole his mama's TV set, and went out. That’s never anybody's story. The one-dimensionalizing of people was horrific. It takes away people's humanity; we don't know anything else about them.

"Even in a film that I love, like Moonlight, we never know why the mother in that film started using crack. One could argue that the story was about the boy and through his eyes. But it perpetuated this myth of the crazy mother who cared more about getting high than she did about her child, which in almost every case is not true. We don't know what else is going on for that mother, and we never do.

It perpetuated this myth of the crazy mother who cared more about getting high than she did about her child.

"Once you say 'crack' — or any kind of drug, but especially crack — you don’t have to ask about anything else, you don't have to ask whether they were traumatized, if they lost job their job and were unable to take care of their family, or if they had pre-existing mental illness. Once you say that, you don't have to ask anything. The person’s humanity is completely written off. We don't look for another story, and we especially don't look for other solutions."

How would you recommend creators portray these issues in a more productive way?

"I recommend people portray whole human beings. Nobody is one thing in their life. And I recommend we get — especially Black people get this treatment that we've never gotten in this country — a portrayal of the wholeness and fullness of our humanity for all of our fabulousness and flaws, and all the things that impede upon those.

"We too have often participated in dehumanizing who we were. We have to come to a point where we reconcile ourselves and the fact that we cannot continue to perpetuate things that are rooted in lies and hate. We have to be much more critical commentators on society.... I’m asking people to look and see. When you have people behaving in a chaotic way, what else is going on? Ask the deeper questions, stop accepting everything at face value — especially when it looks to pathologize a particular community. Because that's what the U.S. does well: They pathologize people, call them criminals, call them 'superpredators,' and then 15 years later say, 'We were wrong.' But who’s going to repair the damage?"

I recommend people portray whole human beings. Nobody is one thing in their life.

What can we learn from the way the crack "epidemic" was misrepresented?

"First, I’d like to stop saying 'crack epidemic' and I'd like to instead say 'Reagan epidemic.' [Another] thing I would tell people to do is study. They should read High Price by Dr. Carl Hart, which is both a memoir and a science book. It really pulls apart everything that happened when crack was focused on in the media. We need to be consumers of actual real-world evidence. As we know, right now, we’re consumers of fake news. And at some point, America’s gotta look at itself and ask why we’re so vulnerable to this stuff."