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Cocaine, crack and base
Written by Jonthan Swift   
Thursday, 14 April 1994 00:00


  • by Dr. Jonathan Swift, Haight-Ashbury free clinic April 14, 1994

What was all the fuss about back in '89 over the smoking of cocaine? With hindsight, the problem seemed to be blown out of all proportion, but the solution was not far away

It all started on that sunny spring morning four years ago There had been yet another police sweep of Bayview's Third Street corridor the night before with forty young men hauled off to jail on charges of traffficking in "crack" cocaine. As always, these same youths would be back on the street in a day or two, selling their potent wares just as before - but meanwhile, there was no one offering the stuff, and there were dozens of jittery, unhappy buyers milling about on the corners or sulking in their cars. It was at that moment, at about 10.30 am on Wednesday, April 18th, 1990, that the "Prevention Pot" program made its appearance on Third Street and on the pages of our city's history.

At first no one knew what to make of the Prevention Pot women - they seemed to appear out of nowhere, carrying big old-fashioned metal coffee pots, approaching the knots of frustrated crack buyers with their singsong, "Hey, honey, you lookin' awful - try a cup of this nice hot tea It didn't take long for the word to get around that their tea was good. By noon all the anxious cracksters along a one-mile stretch of Third Street l tried at least one cup of this aroma green drink, and they found that they were no longer jittery, but instead had a warm glow of calm self-confidence arising from the very pit of their stomachs. The Prevention Pot people disappeared for a few hours, but they were back for another hour in the late afternoon, and again for a while in the late evening. By day's end, their styrofoam cups had replaced "crack" vials as the most telltale litter of Third Street.

Prevention Pot was back on Thursday - some new faces, but again mostly big, middle-aged women with nurturing, friendly manners, and still wielding those distinctive big blue enamel coffee pots. Somehow there was enough tea for everyone. That evening, several of the crack dealers returned to the street, only to find most of their former customers feeling just fine behind their cups of green tea, and not in the market for "hubbas". The dealers grumbled a lot, but dared do nothing against these matronly women - one even recognized his own grandma. They took their commerce to the more accepting markets of Ingleside and Visitacion Valley.


"I don't know leroy, I kinda miss the old days, you just can't feel like a rebel when you're getting a hit from your grandma".

It took several more days before the S.F. Police Department realized what was happening: Prevention Pot's hot green tea was nothing less than a brew of coca leaves! The SFPD made preparations to bust Prevention Pot, whose routine of "working" Third Street for an hour each morning, afternoon, and evening had by now becomefamiliar But a patrolman pointed out that calls from the Third Street area had dropped by 60% since the 18th. The SFPD, ever one to "let sleeping dogs lie", decided to hold off for a while.

By the end of Summer 1990, the "good women of Third Street" had become familiar and respected figures in the neighbourhood. Crackheads from other parts of the city came to sample their soothing but invigorating brew; the crack trade in those outlying neighbourhoods began to decline. Mayor Agnos extended his approval and protection; the Chronicle wrote glowing stories; Channel Four did many an interview for its Six O'Clock News. One TV newswoman, Belva Davis, coined the now-famous word "cokee" to describe the tea.

The further history of cokee in San Francisco is well known, and will not be belabored here. Probably the most remarkable facet of that history is how quickly the "cokeeshop" phenomenon developed in the City, after the State decriminalized coca leaf in October 1990. Everyone assumed that the crack dealers would fight to regain their market, but they just seemed to disappear in the face of the combined force of community sentiment, continued police pressure, a certain amount of vigilant Guardian Angel activity, and all those persistent, cheery women who seemed so much like people's fussy, caring grandmas...

Sociologists have commented on the amazing turnaround in the quality of life for San Francisco's black population in the early 1990's. Some say the cause was the near-total replacement of snorted or smokeable cocaine (30-90% purity) by coca-leaf tea (.01% cocaine content), and the elimination of criminal trafficking in that substance.

There are now more than 200 cokeeshops, selling an average of 500 to 600 cups per day at the regulated price of 82 per cup. The majority of the establishments are in the south-east quarter of the City. The typical proprietor is black, male, and young - many of these are thought to be reformed crack dealers. Some observers have Commented on the strong resemblance of the San Francisco cokeeshop to the Parisian working-class bistro: the marble tables, the tasty snacks, the tuneful music, the lively banter of the patron the easy-going ambiance. But the role of the cokeeshop in restoring the fiscal health of San Francisco

also deserves mention: with the tax of $1 per cup, the City grossed more than $35,000,000 in revenues from this source in 1993. As only $12,000,000 was spent on regulating the cokeeshops and funding substance use prevention programs, enough was left to cut the City's deficit in half.

Of course, the tax picture for other drugs has changed, too, since 1990: the application of the Koop Rule (that all substances should be taxed in proportion to the amount of social and health problems they lead to) now means that liquor is taxed at an average of $35 per bottle, and cigarettes at $20 per pack. This has led to a big decrease in the abuse of alcohol and nicotine in black communities.

Things were also helped by the Kennedy-Pelosi Infrastructure Rehabilitation Act of 1993. Sixty billion dollars of defence spending was redirected to the rebuilding of the nation's highways, bridges, sewers, streets, and public housing. A million jobs were created - with San Francisco getting more than its share, thanks to the clout of its Congresswomen. The work was hard and gritty, but it paid well - with overtime and productivity bonuses, as much as $1,000/week - and the muscular young people who thronged the cokeeshops of Bayview and Hunters Point at 7.00 am every morning seemed eager to get to it, after their customary "cuppas".
It seems that the U.S.'s new emphasis on strengthening the family as a healthy economic unit has
also made a difference for black Americans - especially such get-tough legislation as the Moynihan-Dellums Mandatory Child Support Law ("miss a payment, go to prison"). And one mustn't overlook the recent reforms in banking policies which enabled residents of public housing to buy their apartments (more fully described in 'The Condoization of Sunnydale", San Francisco Examiner, November 15th, 1993).

It took less than eight months for coca-leaf tea to displace crack in San Francisco. No one would have predicted this a scant five years ago. Perhaps these quotes can help explain the phenomenon:

"Sure, crack gives a big high - for about five minutes!", says ex-user Jerry Fowler. "But a couple of cups of cokee holds me all morning, with no messing with my head or craving.

I can go to work behind it, and there's no more worry about missing my connection. Cokee gives me my money's worth - like, I'd rather have a premium beer than a shot of rotgut whiskey,"

'Dexter', an ex-convict who now owns a cokeeshop on Third Street, states, 'Seah, I made a lot of money dealing hubbas. I also got totally stressed out from all the hassling by cops. Look, my cafe is going to clear 100 thou this year. I get to keep all this, and I get respect from the community - from the elders as well as the players, and that means a lot to me nowadays!"

"Crack was destroying our black community, but it would have been much worse if we'd fought it with the Sascistic measures some of my colleagues were proposing back in 1989 - sometimes the cure is worse than the disease!", declares County supervisor Naomi White. "I'd just as soon see our young people not using my substances at all - but meanwhile, it's good to see that 60% decrease in black-on-black violence, and those tax revenues from the cokeeshops are mighty nice to see,

"Coca tea probably saved a thousand black lives in San Francisco", says Randy Shilts, author of Leadership From Below: A decade of Public Policy on AIDS (St. Jartin's Press, 1992). "If the level of promiscuous sexual activity associated with crack abuse had continued for even a couple of years longer, the AIDS virus would have spread a lot further than it did."

"I'm less worried about the long-term medical effects of coca leaf consumption, now that those statistics on Bolivian Indians are in," declares Dr. David Smith, medical director of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. 'They actually live slightly longer than comparable groups of peasants who don't consume the leaf.

However, I'm still concerned about the possibility of urinary tract irritation and higher rates of stomach cancer - we need to start some good 30-year longitudinal studies."

Among the very few dissenters from this chorus of approval for coca tea is Dr. John Newmeyer, epidemiologist at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. He states, "It was the turnaround in social and economic policies that made the difference for inner-city people, not the legalization of coca leaf. We don't need another psychoactive substance - don't we have enough of them with alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, sugar, and Valium? What we needed five years ago was programs that would have improved the economy of the inner cities, and given people hope and opportunity. If Jesse had only gotten elected President in '88 rather than '92, these things would have happened sooner, and people would have turned away from crack without any need for coca tea!"

The author, John Newmeyer, is an epidemiologist at the Haight Asbury Free Clinics, San Francisco, USA.