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It's Not All It's Cracked Up To Be PDF Print E-mail
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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Prohibition & Conscience of Nations 1990
Written by Jefferson Morley   
Monday, 01 October 1990 00:00

I smoked crack and wrote an article about it for The New Republic. As I had hoped, "What Crack Is Like" instigated many debates within the Washington political class and attracted more than a little interest outside that cloistered group. The article made three points, all of which will strike some people as self-evident: Crack is a pleasurable drug with unpleasant side effects; crack can "make sick sense to demoralized people" and the spread of crack capitalism is related to the phenomenon of Reaganism. That same week I published a historical-economic analysis of the drug problem in The Nation ("Contradictions of Cocaine Capitalism," Oct. 2, (19891) which initially drew little media attention, no doubt because it was a more substantive article. In fact, the reactions to The New Republic piece were more interesting than the piece itself. The peculiarities of our so-called drug war and the desire for a new debate about the problem have never been more evident.

By noon of the day The New Republic rolled off the presses William Bennett had described my piece as "garbage" and called me "a defector in the drug war." In this compliment I resented only Bennett's implication that I was a soldier, not a citizen, and somehow bound to salute his efforts. Over the weekend, the usual suspects from the Sunday morning talk shows — Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Al Hunt — reiterated Bennett's criticisms, often word for word: "garbage, irresponsible" and so on.

What especially galled the pundits was my remark that "if all you have in life is bad choices, crack may not be the most unpleasant of them." No one said this was untrue, as Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, pointed out in my defense — only that it was "unhelpful." Indeed, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor of The American Spectator, expressed a journalistic philosophy no longer current, even at Pravda. Tyrrell said my article was "contemptible" because I did not express support for benevolent state efforts to wipe out market activity.

Stephen Rosenfeld, a foreign policy columnist for The Washington Post, at least tried to debate the issue, devoting a confused column to my article. The ink not spent on abusing my person was spent quoting a Washington public health official about the crack experience. Rosenfeld was so excited that he never noticed the official's description of the crack experience in no way contradicted my own. The damaging effects of addiction to drug war rhetoric were evident. Rosenfeld asserted that crack "withers the mothering instinct" among female users. Exactly how the drug does this, biologically and chemically, he was unable to explain.

The following Monday morning, I went on C-Span, the public affairs cable channel, and exchanged pleasantries with Brian Lamb, a conservative gentleman and a soothing interlocutor. Wasn't I condoning the use of crack? Lamb inquired. If anything, I was discouraging it, I said. The curious could learn about the drug from my article. If they took it seriously, they would learn that in one man's very limited experience, crack's pleasure quickly gave way to its side effects, combining "the worst of marijuana and cocaine" and inducing both stupefaction and paranoia. "Let's go to the phones," Lamb said, eyes twinkling. He was enjoying the prospect of my imminent pasting by the vox populi.

Thirteen of the next 15 callers approved of my article, several of them using the same phrase, "I'm with you 100 percent." What came through most consistently in the comments was a sense of relief at hearing someone in the media say something — anything outside the rhetorical consensus of justsay-no and zero-tolerance.

I went on radio talk shows in Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit and Boston. "What's crack like?" my interviewers inevitably wanted to know. Or did they? Crack has been around for six years and smoked by millions of Americans. I asked several of these media representatives if they had ever posed the questions to the many available crack users in their home towns. Most had not. They were such loyal soldiers in the drug war that they had forgotten to do their jobs. Others said that they regarded local crack smokers as less reliable and less interesting than me. "You're a real person," one TV reporter said in a revealing slip. "I mean, you're a real articulate person."

The inevitable second question was, "They say you smoke crack once and you're addicted. Are you addicted?" The answer was no. I often replied by asking why they believed that one-time crack use leads to addictions. "That's what everybody says," answered Mark Belling, a talk show host in Milwaukee. Had he ever conducted a survey of crack users in his city to answer the question himself? Neither he nor any other journalist critical of my article had ever attempted such reporting. (In fact, Harpers 's magazine reported in November that 6 out of 10 crack users eventually become addicted, compared with 9 out of 10 cigarette users.)

My mother liked the article; my father hated it. He called to tell me I'd made a "big mistake." He said that I was an elitist wise-ass in the worst New Republic tradition who had trivialized a terrible problem by drawing attention to myself and not to the real issues involved. This criticism left me depressed for a week. Like the Sunday morning gasbags, my father is a Reaganite. Unlike them, he know's what he's talking about. He's a journalist who knows and works with neighborhood activists who are trying to extirpate the crack economy block by block in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

When I attempted to say something about challenging the Bennett propaganda barrage, he cut me off. "What's Bill Bennett got to do with the crack problem?" he demanded. A good question. I admit that I couldn't dismiss entirely his argu ment that even to join this spurious Washington debate, especially in the provocative way that I did, was "counterproductive."

The personal letters I received were supportive by a margin of about ten to one. "The criticism that you lacked sufficient reverence for the drug problem seems to me symptomatic of the very hysteria that you pointed out," wrote Dave Hage, a newspaper reporter from the Twin Cities. "I may take an even stronger position than you — that this drug hysteria is a grotesque deception and a classic case of inventing a problem we'd like to solve so we can ignore problems we don't want to solve." The letters to The New Republic, on the other hand, were critical by a margin of 15 to 8. The charge of irresponsibility ,,recurred, most compellingly from people with firsthand experience in the drug problem. Michael Kellogg, a former prosecutor from the Bronx now living in Washington, said, "I felt nothing but sorrow for the kids who used and sold crack as a means of escaping their already blighted lives. I feel nothing but contempt for a twit like Morley who uses the drug to spice up his otherwise unimaginative writing."

Cynthia Malenfant of Newburyport, Massachusetts, said, "What gives him [Morley] the right to break the law?" Nothing, I had to concede. I'm in the same position as the journalist who wrote about his experiences in a speak-easy in the 1920s. I harmed no one and hardly tried to evade the consequences of my actions. I was (and am) prepared for drug enforcement agents knocking on my door, and I'm willing to go to court to testify about my actions. If the drug warriors want to get tough on that contemporary beast, "the casual user, " then I am their man. But the knock never came, and l'm confident it never will. I have access to expert legal counsel and to the media. The drug warriors prefer to go after casual users who have fewer defenses.

The most original point was made by Kenneth Anderson of New York City, who said my article was "a print version of that other much-publicized, equally exploitative Washington drug buy." Anderson, of course, was referring to the drug enforcement agents' buy of three ounces of crack in Lafayette Park prior to President Bush's nationally televised address on drugs in early September. Anderson's analogy was apt, but I would add that Bush "used" crack to make a point that was frankly dishonest — despite what millions of Americans have been told by the president, you can't buy crack in Lafayette Park. I used crack to make points that were at least debatable.

I could tell the controversy was dying out when Abe Rosenthal, senior columnist for The New York Times, called. "Very interesting, very interesting, " he said. Could I spare a few moments to answer some questions? I understood these sonorities to mean that he was preparing a vicious hatchet job on me.

"Ask away," I replied nervously.

How many times had I used cocaine in my life?

"Well, I'll put it this way, Mr. Rosenthal, " I said. "I've used cocaine fewer times than Fawn Hall." (The Washington Post reported last summer that Hall had told drug enforcement agents investigating a local cocaine dealer that she had used cocaine some forty times while working for Oliver North.)

"And how many times have you used marijuana?"

I thought: Is this news that's fit to print? I said:

"My favorite recreational drug is Miller Lite."

"Miller Lite," he murmured, as if I had uttered a pleasantry in Swedish, and he had to pretend, out of sheer politeness, to comprehend the meaning of such a strange expression. "Millerlite. Millerlite." End of interview. Rosenthal wisely decided not to write about me.

Since then, I've been receiving many more calls asking about my Nation article on the cocaine economy. I spent an hour on the phone lines on "The Mike Cuthbert Show" on WAMU here in Washington, and every caller save one was dissatisfied with the national drug debate. Jay Marvin, a talk show host on WTKN in Tampa, wanted to hear about banks in Florida that launder drug money. Jean (Queen) Steinberg, a talk show host on WQBH, a black community station in Detroit, was hoping for a wide-ranging discussion with her listeners. And "Addiction-Free Radio" (then KJIM, now KERR) in Boulder, Colorado, was especially receptive to alternative views on the drug war.

The new drug debate is hindered by the realities of our political culture. Representative Charles Rangel, appearing with me on "Larry King Live," said that the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was a mistake. Range!, of course, doesn't really want to ban alcohol. As a career politician, he just can't imagine entrusting the American people with the task of controlling antisocial behavior. Then again, he is a congressman from Harlem, a devastated community that has little reason to entrust its fate to the American sense of social responsibility. If we were all more civic-minded, Rangel's constituents would not be in such bad shape. Rangel's lack of faith in the collective social responsibility required to make drug reform succeed is understandable, if self-defeating.

"So what's your answer?" Rangel, a drug prohibitionist at wit's end, said to me, "Legalize?"

Well, yes. But legalization is only the beginning. The so-called war on drugs is no substitute for social policy — despite what the Bush administration pretends. And neither is drug legalization. The drug crisis in the United States is really two crises: a crisis of public health that has created millions of untreated drug addicts and a crisis of economic opportunity that has created millions of unregulated and untaxed drug entrepreneurs.

Current government policy is to eliminate these problems by coercively discouraging the desire, exhibited in the actions of as many as 50 million Americans, to use marijuana and cocaine. Few believe this experiment in social engineering will succeed. Bennett's aides routinely tell reporters that they don't expect to "win" the war on drugs for a generation; as much as 80 percent of the public say that they don't expect current policies to solve the problem. Yet in public debate most elected officials feel obliged to pledge allegiance to the government's fantasy. And many journalists feel it's not their job to question the officials who are promoting it.

Other journalists and citizens believe the public health problems related to crack are so severe that any discussion of pleasurable casual crack use in the media is irresponsible, even (especially) if it is accurate. Their intentions — to try to prevent crack from taking over any more lives — are unimpeachable, but I think they are also reinforcing the unreal drug debate. In fact, the drug experience is governed not just by the drug, but also by the person who uses it and the social setting in which he or she uses it. If I could rewrite my article, I would say even more explicitly that I was reporting on my own unique crack experience, which has no necessary implications for how anyone else would experience the drug.

Then why write about it? Because writing about my drug use did have one implication for other people: that it could be informative and useful to discuss drugs in ways that are considered unacceptable by the moral custodians of the current drug debate. That spurious debate, as even my sober Reaganite father knows, promises virtually nothing for the pathetic people whose only solace is crack. It trifles with the safety of policemen on the beat, who are asked to risk their lives to do the impossible, and it compromises our civil liberties in pursuit of the illusory (and undesirable) vision of a drug-free America.

Taken together, my Nation and New Republic articles suggest that our unreal drug debate ghettoizes the social problems generated by the drug economy. In the process, it removes from public debate the rewards of the drug economy: the political and financial opportunities now enjoyed by drug bankers and testers, by ambitious bureaucrats and sycophantic journalists and, most of all, by politicians who prefer to ignore the country's sad crises. I think a lot of people intuitively understand this, which is why interest is beginning to shift from what crack is like to the contradictions of cocaine capitalism.


Jefferson Morley, "Aftermath of a Crack Article," The Nation Magazine/The Nation Company, Inc., Nov. 20, 1989, p. 592.


Our valuable member Jefferson Morley has been with us since Sunday, 11 March 2012.

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