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Addiction, Compassion, Race: Looking Back At The Crack Epidemic


During the latter part of the 1980s, Robert Stutman led the New York field office for the Drug Enforcement Administration. His days were spent cultivating informants, and going after large-scale narcotics traffickers, mostly cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

"And I will never forget the day in late September of 1985, I was a having a staff meeting in my office...The supervisor walked into the meeting, and I'll never forget his words. He said, 'Boss, we're finding vials of this shit all over Harlem. They call it crack, and we have no idea what it is.'"

This story was produced by WHYY's The Pulse.

Within a few years, there would be no escaping crack's impact. Television news filled Americans' screens with images of small plastic vials and drug-ravaged bodies, of guns and arrests and dealers. There were fears of a generation lost to crack babies.

 "Today, there is a new epidemic," Ronald Reagan told the nation during an address in 1986. "Smokable cocaine, otherwise known as crack. It is an explosively destructive and often lethal substance, which is crushing its users. It is an uncontrolled fire."

An uncontrolled fire, except crack wasn't sweeping everywhere. The drug was mainly confined to inner cities, and predominantly black communities, where the violence exploded.

In Mott Haven, a poor section of the already poor South Bronx in New York City, Martha Overall watched crack roll in like a wave.

"It was this overwhelming flood of really cheap, really potent drugs," says Overall, who is the priest of St. Ann's Episcopal Church. "And you know, the person who would take it was not really in charge of themselves, because it was the drug taking over them. So it was an incredibly emotionally devastating period."

Overall says the Mott Haven neighborhood has never fully recovered from the epidemic.

Part of those lingering scars were caused by the criminal justice system's aggressive response to crack. Mandatory minimums and far harsher sentences than those applied to cocaine helped swell the prison population and break apart families.

At the time, treatment wasn't much a part of the conversation. This was the 'War on Drugs,' and in war, there is no room for leniency.

"Those people belong in jail," New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, told the audience at the 1989 U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering. "Those people who are users, I have no sympathy for them. None at all. Maybe in the past we did. It has gone on too long."

That lack of patience for crack users stands in stark contrast to how politicians and police are tackling and talking about heroin, today's national epidemic.

"We're going to work really hard to get those people who are so addicted off the habit," Donald Trump told the crowd after his win in the New Hampshire primary. Both Democrats and Republicans have stressed their compassion for heroin and opioid users, and shared anecdotes of addiction within their own families.  

"It is a stunning turnaround of humanization, of reaching out, of undermining blameworthiness, and of talking about drugs as a medical problem, and a public health problem, rather than a pathology and weakness within a community," says Ekow Yankah, a professor at Cardozo Law School in Manhattan. He recently wrote an op-ed about the role of race in addiction response in the New York Times, and the disparities between 1980s crack, perceived as a 'black' drug, and today's heroin epidemic, predominantly used by whites.

"It is fair of people to ask where was this compassion when it was the African American community being attacked by addiction," he says.

There are likely other factors at play besides race in today's new attitude toward substance abuse. Addiction researchers and those on the front lines have been pushing for reforms for decades, and our understanding of what causes addiction, and how best to treat it, are clearer today.

But Yankah writes about feeling a "bittersweet sting" over the new approach, and the efforts to support rather than incarcerate. It was politically safe to 'Just Say No' to poor black people.

"Looking at the children, at young black mothers, people saw welfare queens, and something wrong with them. Now, people say, 'my god, that could be my child,' when they look at the young white faces...So there is just no question that our moral imagination seems to have all too often a racial boundary," he says.

To be clear, Yankah isn't calling for today's generation of users to suffer the same fate as those from 30 years ago, and he says this shouldn't be about guilt over historical wrongs. His argument is that the lessons we can learn from the two epidemics can help shape our approach to other public health challenges, and criminal justice reforms in minority communities.

He wants us to learn from our "meanest moments," and answer our crises, no matter what neighborhood they impact, with greater humanity.