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The Plague Among Us PDF Print E-mail
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Grey Literature - DPF: Drug Prohibition & Conscience of Nations 1990
Written by Arnold Trebach   
Monday, 01 October 1990 00:00

When 1986 began, relatively few people had heard either of crack or of Len Bias. Soon, they were to become tragic household words. They dominated headlines and national fears, often pushing aside such concerns as Soviet espionage, nuclear war, terrorism, poverty, and crime in the streets.

Crack may well have existed for decades in various quiet back rooms of the drug world. More widespread use of the drug was first noticed by a few experts during the 80s. Public concern grew with stories of bizarre behavior by users, especially among our youth.

Few drug abuse experts knew anything about the drug because it was, comparatively speaking, so rarely used. I certainly was ignorant. On April 24, I admitted as much to a nationwide television audience during a heated discussion on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." Barbara Taylor, the editor of Essence magazine, shot back from New York that I certainly wasn't much of a scholar and that it was time to get hysterical about crack in ordeí to save our children. Five weeks later, on another television interview show, Dr. Arnold Washton, a nationally renowned physician in the cocaine treatment business, countered my plea for calm measures by declaring, twice, that we should get hysterical about crack. Dr. Washton had been quoted frequently in the media to that effect, declaring at times that "crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now" and that it caused "almost instantaneous addiction."

Virtually every major print and electronic media vehicle, including the most respected and influential, joined in the emotional stampede. The Washington Post commenced a news story on the drug with a report of a New York City youth who had stabbed his mother to death in a crack-induced frenzy. The prestigious paper gave no explanation of the details nor did it inquire into how many recent homicides were related to alcohol or handguns or the illegal drug trade. Reports were frequently made and repeated that females, including young girls, would go into houses where crack was sold, fmd that they were unable to stop taking the stuff, and would sell their bodies to man after man in order to buy more and more crack. The stories were never balanced with an inquiry into the extent to which drugs, mainly alcohol, and sex were intertwined in legal establishments known as bars.


Newsweek magazine seemed particularly hooked on the compulsion to run story after story on the drug, emphasizing the most sensational aspects of its impact on society and individuals. While it might be argued that such stories served the public interest by scaring off potential users, that was not always the case. One young, though mature college much later that after reading a story on crack in a March issue of Newsweek, "I had never heard of it until then but when I read that it was better than sex and that it was cheaper than cocaine and that there was an epidemic, I wondered what I was missing. I questioned why I seemed to be the only one not doing the drug. The next day I asked some friends if they knew where to get some."

One of the most hysterical issues of a major American publication in recent history was the June 16, 1986, Newsweek, which rivaled the sensationalism of the Reefer Madness movie about pot in the 30s. Editor-in-chief Richard Smith unburdened himself of a lead editorial entitled "The Plague Among Us," in which he compared the drug problem to medieval plagues and to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Smith saw all of these drugs but now especially crack — "the ... most addictive commodity now on the market" — as creating a crisis that threatened the survival of the nation. The drugs themselves, mind you, not the governmental and social reaction to them.

A few days later, in one of those sad and unpredictable events that changes the course of history, Len Bias died suddenly in his room at the University of Maryland. Bias was 22, black, a star basketball player at the university, liked and admired by his friends and those fans in his region who knew him, a nice American kid, a model of clean living. The Boston Celtics (one of the most prestigious teams in 1988 1989 all of American sports) had drafted him to play in the National Basketball Association and he had just signed a rich contract. The kid even had a jersey number. Total strangers with no interest in basketball were elated for him. The young man from the other side of the tracks had his foot on the first step of the American glory trail.

Headlines in June suggested that crack might have killed Len Bias. Before the end of the month, another young black sports star, professional football player Don Rogers, died of a cocaine — many people heard that as "crack" — overdose. Coming on top of all of the previous hysteria, the tragic deaths of these two young Americans pushed the governmental and social leadership of the most powerful nation on earth into frenzied action in all directions at once.

Bills were tossed into legislative hoppers all over the country as if they were sandbags heaved onto dikes being hastily erected to control a rampaging flood. Measures were proposed on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to demand mass random urine tests of government officials, to deploy the military to control drug trafficking, to impose the death penalty for certain homicides connected with drug sales, to water down the exclusionary rule so that evidence seized without a warrant and in violation of the Fourth Amendment could be introduced in drug prosecutions so long as the officer had good faith, and dozens of other more repressive recommendations. It was a scary time to sit here in the middle of the national capital and sense my own government coming apart, losing its guts, blowing its cool, prostituting itself, or all four.

On July 10, Dr. Donald Ian MacDonald, the top operational federal drug abuse official — the Administrator of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration or ADAMHA — held a major press conference on cocaine, which was reported in all the major media. The impression given by the television network anchormen and by leading reporters on national newspapers was that Dr. MacDonald had produced shocking new data proving that there had been an explosion in cocaine and crack deaths during recent months. In a typical front-page story in July, USA Today reported (in error, as it later turned out) that there had been 563 cocaine-related deaths during the first six months of 1986.

On July 15, it was dramatically revealed that armed American helicopters crews had arrived with their planes in Bolivia to transport local police on raids against cocaine laboratories in the jungles. Later, President Reagan said that the deaths of young Bias and Johnson had been important factors influencing his decision to send off other young Americans in uniform to get the drugs at the source. It was also revealed that our troops had already been secretly involved in such missions, in, for example, Colombia — and that more drug raids would be launched in other countries if the Bolivian attacks were successful. These overseas military drug missions were tragic firsts in the long American antidrug crusade. They pushed us all across a chemical Rubicon from which it will not be easy to return.

What do we know about the drug that has caused all this furor? Not much, even today; I can come up with only rudimentary information. What follows, therefore, are cautious observations.

Almost every major drug has been, at various times in our history, treated as a threat to the survival of the nation by some segments of society. Moreover, there seems nothing terribly new about the type of chemical process that produced crack. Entrepreneurs have for eons sought to produce more potent forms of mind-altering drugs that could be transported more cheaply, be sold at a higher cost per unit, be appealing to different tastes, and produce more immediate effects. Fermented grapes and grains were and are fine for many millions of people. Distilling, however, produced spirits, sometimes called brandywine, that were more potent. Wine and beer create trouble for many people, but the greatest difficulty seems to come from the more concentrated distilled spirits of alcohol. The less natural the drug the more trouble for humans.

The same for opium. Smoking the dried powder that comes from the opium-poppy sap is both calming and potentially addicting — not nearly so alluring or dangerous, however, as using morphine, the main active ingredient in opium. Neither is as thrilling or as dangerous as diacetylmorphine, which could, for convenience, be called the essence of morphine plus a bit of vinegar-like,- acid; this concentrated and refined drug is also known as heroin.

Chewing the leaves of the South American coca plant produces, along with numbness of the mouth and tongue, a mild sensation of stimulation and good feeling. When chemists managed to isolate what might be called the essence of coca, the most powerful ingredient in the leaf, they produced a very potent white powder: cocaine hydrochloride. Largely ignored for years, cocaine, as it is usually called, suddenly became very popular to millions of Americans who now like to snort it through their noses.

For many thrill-seekers (and that is what is truly involved here) both the stimulation and the risks of the cocaine powder were enough. Then some bored soul decided to refine the powder further for smoking, which is the most rapid way to get drugs to the brain, being even quicker than injection. Thus, freebasing was born.

Traditional freebasing involves heating the powder with volatile chemicals, such as ether, Which sometimes results in explosions and fires. This, apparently, is what injured comedian Richard Pryor several years ago. The preparation of crack is easier and safer. Cocaine powder is mixed with water and baking soda or ammonia. The result is a highly concentrated chemical that looks like bits of coagulated soap powder, often slightly off-white, about the size of large green peas. It is frequently smoked in a pipe and makes a crackling sound when lit. In some cities, it is known as rock or cooked cocaine.

A gram of cocaine, less than a teaspoonful, costs at least $100 in many communities. Crack pellets are sometimes sold for as little as $10 each in the same neighborhoods.

That this form of the drug is more addicting than powdered cocaine should come as no surprise. Any drug that is more refined and then smoked will be more potent than its less concentrated relatives.

However, it is premature and perhaps misleading to call it the most addictive drug now known. While I believe that anybody who tries this relatively unknown compound is a fool, my guess is that it is no more addicting than smoked tobacco or smoked heroin. I also believe, in passing, that anyone who uses either of those latter substances in any form is a fool. As with those dangerous drugs, however, some foolish people use crack and do not get hooked.

It is also misleading to view this as a plot to hook our children with a cheap drug, as many alleged experts and commentators have been doing. Those people susceptible to the allure of crack will often spend roughly as much as those who use cocaine powder. While the high of crack is immediate, it is also of short duration, perhaps a few minutes, necessitating repeated purchases for those at risk. Many adults with money and curiosity are users.

We do not know how many addicted customers there are out there. One is too many in my book, but if there is truly a national epidemic, I have yet to see the hard proof.

That hard proof would exist, in my eyes, in the records of federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration of the Department of Justice or the National Institute of Drug Abuse (the NIDA) of the Department of Health and Human Services. When I heard and read the major news stories during July on the crack epidemic and related deaths, I was confused because they were inconsistent with my reading of the available federal data. My calls to officials in NIDA and DEA brought honest humility and responses like: we really don't know very much about crack but what we read in the newspapers. There is not even a separate listing for crack, they told me, in NIDA's authoritative Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which collects data on drug abuse deaths and injuries. Crack injuries and deaths are listed under cocaine.

When I finally obtained a copy of the materials passed out at that sensational July 10 news conference, I discovered that Dr. MacDonald had made a disclaimer from the start to the effect that the federal experts had no new data on cocaine and crack. The disclaimer was not reported by the media. Why, then, call this major news conference? Dr. MacDonald explained that he wanted "to underscore the great potential risk we know is involved in cocaine use." In the demagogic atmosphere of Washington at that time, this should have been interpreted: We, the leading national medical scientists, have nothing new to tell you about the dangers of cocaine, but everyone else is getting press attention from crack, and we deserve some too, by gosh.

All during the public hysteria of the summer of 1986, the only complete annual DAWN data available was that for 1984, which showed 604 mentions of cocaine in reports by medical examiners. (A "mention" signifies that a medical examiner or coroner found indications of the drug in the body of a person who died suddenly from drug abuse, normally from an overdose. Coroners reporting to DAWN may provide mentions of up to three drugs for each sudden drug abuse death.) That was a significant rise above the 195 mentions of 1981, an increase that was heralded from one end of the country to the other. Even if each of those 604 mentions involved a death caused by cocaine, which is not the case, and as tragic as each death was, it is difficult to see the destruction of a nation of 240 million in 604 cocaine deaths when so many more of our people are being killed by other drugs, especially the legal ones.

Totally ignored in the cries to save our children from crack were the NIDA data which showed that the total number of children who died from cocaine in 1984 was eight. Yes, eight, from all forms of cocaine, including crack. And these at the time of the greatest hysteria were the latest complete data from the federal government, which also showed 14 mentions of cocaine for ages 18 and 19, and 273 for young people in their 20s, or a total of 295 mentions for all Americans under age 30.

No data are available as of this writing, the fall of 1986, for this year. Thus, all of the claims about the great rise in crack deaths for the first months of 1986, such as that reported by USA Today and other major media voices, were false. Even more significant, none of the leading government drug abuse officials, who knew the claims for 1986 to be false, felt any responsibility to tell the public the truth during the scared summer of '86.

During that summer, preliminary information was available for 1985 on all cocaine deaths. The significance of this information was either ignored or reported in a misleading fashion by the government and the media. While the end of America from drugs was being declared, the number of known cocaine deaths in those preliminary figures had actually declined from 1984 to 1985. Because there had been a slight rise in recorded cocaine, including crack, use in those years, a fair headline might have been "Cocaine and crack use rise while deaths decline!" I would have settled for no headlines at all on the matter....

How many reported cocaine deaths have been laia at the door of crack, alone or in combination with other drugs? I have searched. My assistants have searched. We have gone through many government reports. We have quizzed government statistical experts. We have yet to discover one death in which the presence of crack was a confirmed factor. In time, I am sure that we will because it is such a potent and addicting drug, but up to now, we have not.


Our valuable member Arnold Trebach has been with us since Monday, 20 December 2010.

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