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Cocaine, crack and base
Written by Ansley Hamid   

The decline of crack use in New York City
Drug policy or natural controls?

By Ansley Hamid

Since Spring 1990, the street prices of crack in New York City have, been rising steadily. At the end of April, the price of a "big-8" (1/8th of a kilogram, or 41/2 ounces of crack or cocaine hydrochloride powder) had been $1,100; by mid-June, it was $2,500. The price of an ounce of crack, which had ranged from $550 to $600 reached $900. The price of an "8-ball" (1/8th of an ounce of crack, or 3 1/2 grams) rose from $80-1OC to $120. In mid-June, a "nickel" ($5 vial) of crack in Flatbush was carefully assessed by a moderately trained eye; there were two solid bits of crack in it and a little dust, and their weight was estimated at 2 or 3 grains. In April, by the same method of reckoning, a "nickel" had contained many more bits, weighing an estimated 7-11 grains. After a lapse of several years, some consumers are again buying cocaine hydrochloride powder in order to prepare freebase or crack themselves, as they are distrustful of the dwindling pre-packaged item.

And prices continue to rise in New York City. At this time of writing (November 1990), the price of a kilogram has climbed from $25,000 to $36,000. aBig-8ths" are now worth $4,800, while ounces sell for $1,600. "8-balls" have fetched as much as $285, a price equivalent to the one asked before 1984 when crack had just appeared in drug markets. A marvellous detail is that simultaneously the shape of crack vials has been modified to hold smaller quantities. In April, they had been flatbottomed and the cap-plunger had been hollow (to contain more crack); today, they are double-walled and torpedo-shaped (a V at the bottom) with solid cap-plungers.

An effect of law enforcement.? One explanation of these findings which will surely be advanced is that the Bush Administration's War on Drugs, which emphasizes a law enforcement approach (Bennett: 1989) is succeeding. Crop eradication/substitution and a reported collapse of the coca leaf market in the Eastern Andes (New York Times: 1990), recent seizures in the United States in quantities of several tons (New York Times: 1990), the arrest of thousands of distributors by the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) and their subsequent incarceration (Curtis: 1990; Frankel and Freeland: 1990; Gunst: 1990; Los Angeles Times: 1990), and stiffer enforcement against users (New York Times: 1990) have combined to make cocaine and crack scarce and more hazardous or costly to distribute or use. Therefore, it might be argued that supply has been curtailed and that consequently prices have increased.

But this explanation deserves to be examined critically, since important federal funding decisions may hinge on it For example, while these achievements are impressive, their actual effectiveness has always been seriously doubted by the police and the DEA who made them. Of ficials responsible for interdiction have explained repeatedly that borders are too many and too extensive to be patrolled adequately. Coca cultivation continues to be the mainstay of at least one million Eastern Andean peasants (Morales 1989;

New York Times: 1990), who have no alternatives. Drug trafficking offers rewards of such large amounts of money that it is irresistible to the thousands of South Americans, Central Americans and minority Americans it has engaged. Profits enable producers and distributors to match sophistication in surveillance and interdiction with more of the same in smuggling. Even as law enforcement initiatives were being applied with utmost vigour (1986-1990), prices fell and crack use was diffused rapidly from its urban birthplaces to the remotest areas in rural America (Newsweek: 1988; Time: 1988). In Washington, where several initiatives were focused in the Drug Czar’s "showpiece" assault on them, distribution and demand thrived (Washington Post: 1990).

An alternative explanation: decline in the market, decrease in using population

An alternative, and somewhat paradoxical, explanation for the recent increase in local prices is that local demand has declined, i.e. that the population of users is decreasing. Normally, when demand for a commodity declines, prices fall. But commodities like crack have special markets which may be unaffected by price fluctuations. This is so for at least two reasons. First, in some crack markets demand develops in flagrant disregard of price and availability and is driven by the same forces which make crack so "addictive". Many consumers must have it at any costs, or cease being consumers at all (through successful drug rehabilitation or by "spontaneous remission"). Secondly, cocaine prices are ultimately determined by a South American oligopoly (Eddy, Sabogal and Walden: 1990) rather than by competition among many producers or by other free market factors affecting supply-demand and pricing.

In this view, crack prices have increased because local distributors still extract accustomed levels of profit from a diminishing number of customers. Further, South American producers are beginning to develop other markets (especially Europe) since American ones may have peaked. In this scenario, they are supplying their clienteles with less product at a higher price.

The recent seizures of tons of cocaine thus acquire a new significance. They suggest that cocaine is being stockpiled in large quantities, possibly for transhipment to European or Eastern European countries, where very recent crack use (sometimes the first of any drug use except alcohol) is being reported (Drucker: 1990; New York Times: 1990) .

Increased prices are not the only indication that the US cocaine and crack markets may be suffering a decline. In New York City, cocaine-related hospital drug mentions are fewer, the number of arrestees testing positive for cocaine has fallen from 82% in 1989 to 56% in 1990, while the city’s caseload of "boarder babies" (infants detained in hospitals at birth on account of the mother’s crack use) has dropped by 25% (New York Times: 1990: Newsday: 1990). Of course, the latter outcome is also due to better foster care placements.

Finally, history supports the expectation that crack use should be declining in the early l990s. "Drug epidemics", like other commodity "fads" or fashions, have a characteristic developmental cycle of initiation widespread diffusion, peak and decline.The final stage is stabilization at reduced levels of use Becker: 1967). For example, in the "heroin injecting epidemic" of 1964-72, a brief period of initiation was followed by rapid diffusion among minority (African American and hispanic) males in their early 20s. From 3% of that age cohort in 1963 users climbed to 20% in 1970. By 1973, however, only 13% remained heroin injectors (Boyle and Brunswich: 1980; Clayton and Voss: 1981). Reduced still  further in number and percentage and in their late 40s and 50s, they are the only heroin injectors in New York City today, as succeeding generations have shunned the drug altogether.

Street ethnography in Harlem and Brooklyn confirms this view. Giving their opinion, both crack distributors and users have reported, with some initial shock or surprise, that their numbers did appear to be dwindling, and that "the same old faces" were being seen. Three in a zillion are the new faces I see, declared one 23 year old abstinent distributor to a journalist in Central Harlem (Newsday: 1990). No informants report initiating crack use after 1987, except for some elderly males. They a11 agreed that persons under 23 years of age appeared to be entirely uninterested in the drug (New York Times: 1990) .

The decline of the crack market

Several reasons may be advanced to explain the stagnation in demand for crack in low-income minority neighbourhoods in New York City:

(a) "Natural" limits have been reached. All commodities must come up against the consumer who will not buy them. Beef cannot be sold to a vegetarian, nor can a fur coat be sold to an animal rights activist. All the persons who wer‡ at high risk for onset of crack use have already become users and its chronic daily use appears to have affected primarily those older than 25. Certainly, complex processes determine the ebb and flow of drug markets (Becker: 1967; Hamid: 1990b). For example inasmuch as crack operated as an instrument of capital depletion of low-income neighbourhoods, and rapidly removed capital from the local level, a limit may have been reached which does not tolerate the movement upwards and out of any more dollars or resources (Hamid: 1990a).

(b) Crack users and distributors have been dispersed from neighbourhoods. Tens of thousands have been removed to prisons and jails (NU: 1990), and thousands more have dropped from sight to the city’s shelter and relief systems for the homeless or into the independent ones of vagrants. Others have migrated to escape problems or crack, or are hospitalised. Some have died.

Stressed by crack-related misfortune for at least three years, many users have sought treatment, or have been prodded into it by court mandates. Accordingly, many have left the neighbourhood to live in residential drug treatment programs. Still others are sheltered, for a fee, by maiden-aunt ("auntie") entrepreneurs. Usually a single elderly woman with an apartment and strong church or community ties, she offers beds, meals, a curfew or other discipline, a drugfree environment and encouragement to persons awaiting treatment slots. In exchange, she receives foodstamps and modest amounts of cash. Those left behind attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings regularly, or quit on their own, by taking jobs and creating newt interests.

(c) Youth is steered away from crack by emergent institutions which discourage experimentation or continued use. Some in their early 20s, for example, have used and distributed crack in the past, but have discontinued use, have formed support groups which rally them against recidivism. .. Crack users are treated with revulsion, and gangs of youths under 16 have made a new pastime of ridiculing or beating up "crackheads" who, they say, disgrace neighbourhoods or are nuisances or thieves (New York Times: 1990). Five years ago, youngsters their age had initiated crack use after first becoming distributors, as previously (1964-72. See above) youngsters had gotten into heroin use. As opportunities in crack distribution are rarer or only part-time nowadays, they were never involved.

Emerging patterns of use

However, these same youths have not discontinued illicit drug use altogether. It appears that they have opted instead for milder and more controlled drug using patterns. In Flatbush, Brooklyn, several young men (18-20 years of age) reported drinking beer, smoking what marijuana is available, enjoying sex, and snorting "nitro". By "nitro", they mean cocaine hydrochloride powder. They explained that while smoking cocaine had wasted many lives, moderate snorting of "nitro" was pleasurable. Calling it "nitro" even concealed its identity with cocaine. They continue to think of heroin as even worse than crack.

Failure to attract new users and loss of old ones have depressed the condition of crack users remaining in the neighbourhoods. Fewer users mean that less energies and ultimately less money are available, precisely at a time when crack is more expensive. As a result, they appear more isolated and marginalized and, as more of them are accepted into treatment, the remainder feels demoralized.


The view that the population of users and distributors is not growing or may be in decline is supported further by the very recent appearance of new social organisational forms in the population of users and distributors, notably "freakhouses" (Science: 1990).

Crack users are beginning to "belong" to households of which the leaseholder is an elderly crack-using male, or one of a few young males lucky enough to be able to afford an apartment. These households, which were first observed during the month of June 1990 in several low-income minority neighbourhoods in New York City are organised as follows: an old man receives sexual services and gifts of crack from a core group of five or six young crack-abusing females. In exchange, they gain a sanctuary in highly transient lifestyles, where they can wash, prepare meals or feel at home. They promptly attract several other crack-abusing females and the combined "harem" lures young male users/distributors and working men of all ages, the latter to "freak" (use any and all of the females sexually - a favourite pastime is "flipping", or the male going from one to as many females as are present in continuous succession) and many use crack (but some ddo not). The visitors pa the old man or one of his appointees cash or crack for any activity: going out to buy crack, beer, or cigarettes; use of private space (by the half hour); or access to the females. Sometimes one of the using/distributing males is allowed, for a fee, to distribute crack on the household, but this practice is usually discouraged, and even when distribution is allowed, the crack is supplied by a street seller. A more permanent distributing arrangement threatens the hegemony of the old man and undermines the loyalty of his core of females (Hamid: 1990b).

The freakhouse is a culmination of social processes at work both in the crack-using population and in the low-income neighbourhood at large. While the real income and other benefits of elderly men or senior citizens have improved appreciably in the last two decades (ref), young women have seen theirs decline steeply over the same period of time, while young men have never received outright cash handouts from the state. The household form acknowledges the greater resources and higher status an old man may have vis-a-vis several segments of descending generations, and responds to their homelessness and high mobility, which have resulted from at least three years of crack abuse.

Freakhouses are distinct from kerbside use and distribution (1986-90), when both took place in mostly public settings, or from the apartments of users, where several co-users had gathered to use crack (and had sexual engagements, but usually as transactions between two individuals). The apartments have been lost and the users evicted. They are distinct from "crackhouses", which had preceded (1984 86) kerbside use and distribution in using locales: "crackhouses" had been set up by distributors (Williams: 1990; Bourgois: 1990), to sell crack and offer smoking paraphernalia for rent (when such paraphernalia as pipes, torches, alcohol etc., were still used). And of course, they differ from such other locales of cocaine use as "freebase parlors" (1982-84, when smokeable cocaine was prepared on the premises, batch by batch), and "after-hours" clubs (before 1981, when cocaine powder was snorted), where not only the social organization of personnel, but even the route of administration differed (Hamid: 1990b).

Especially when contrasted with the preceding period of kerbside use and distribution, which provided formats for the rapid, widespread diffusion of crack use, freakhouses speak of its contraction (Hamid 1990b)

But the declining crack use in freakhouses portends some greater troubles. The risk of AIDS is compounded when individuals have contracted other STDs and have multiple sexual partners. In this phase of decline, therefore, the "crack epidemic" intersects with disease and death (Des Jarlais et al: 1990; Friedman et al: 1990; Fullilove: 1989; Rolf et al: 1988; Minkoff et al: 1990)


The recent lack of interest which persons under 23 years of age have shown towards either crack use or distribution is especially noteworthy, as is their adoption of milder patterns of drug use (including "nitro", a word behind which they conceal occasional intranasal cocaine use). Drug markets are apt to change in the 1990s and the behaviour of this age cohort is critical.

There is reason to fear untutored experimentation with other drugs. The example of the 1964-72 heroin injectors is instructive. By l971, they had reached the same stage of frustration with heroin which crack smokers are today experiencing with crack. Veins had collapsed and there was not an intact one left into which to inject heroin, even if it had been offered free of charge. Craving treatment and care for health-related problems, heroin injectors were offered methadone. Soon though, unhappiness with methadone led to heavy drinking, and eventually, by 1979, to cocaine injecting (Drucker: 1986). In 1981, heroin-injectors-turned-cocaine-injectors-via-methadone complained that injecting cocaine was making them "freeze up": they believed that soon they would be too "frozen up" to bleed. Presently they began smoking cocaine - as freebase - and when this method of administering the drug proved acceptable to marijuana smokers (who were at the time suffering shortages of that drug), the first stage of the crack epidemic was set (Hamid 1990b).

A critical juncture has been reached in the crack epidemic in low-income minority communities and in drug use in New York City. As crack use declines, it functions as a high risk factor for AIDS and violence related to its distribution may increase, as distributors compete for fewer sales, or as consumers commit more desperate acts to pay increased prices.

The idea of a developmental cycle in drug epidemics incorporating distinct stages of inittiation, widespread diffusion peak, decline and stabilization is a reminder that the dangers and opportunities of the drug are different from stage to stage and should be met by policy sensitive to change.

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Our valuable member Ansley Hamid has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.

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