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'Crack' Author Interview

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In recent years, people across the country have been touched by the addiction crisis, with most attention going to the opioids that are killing an average of 130 people a day according to government figures. But this isn't the first time the nation has confronted a drug crisis that has caused terrible damage. In the 1980s and '90s, it was crack cocaine.

In his new book "Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, And The Decade Of Greed," historian David Farber takes a deep dive into the history of the narcotic from its roots in the legal cocaine trade to crack's central role in the war on drugs. It also tells the stories of many addicts and dealers as well as the authorities who tried to stop them. And David Farber is with us now.

Professor Farber, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID FARBER: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So there was a time when crack was talked about, like, all day everywhere. And now it's almost like ancient history. What made you, first of all, want to tell the story of crack now?

FARBER: I think one of the things that drove me as a historian is we live with drugs in the United States. We live with the desire of tens of millions of people to become intoxicated every day. And we sort of don't know what to do with that as part of the American narrative. So I wanted to try to think out loud about that.

MARTIN: Well, so let's go back a little bit. Why were so many people drawn to the drug, both using it and selling it?

FARBER: It's a drug that really produced a very hard high. And I guess a lot of people - then and now, let's be honest - were looking for that kind of oblivion. Crack was not a beginner's drug. It was for experienced drug users. And it was cheap. It was readily accessible. And it seemed not to have the dangers that, let's say, a needle drug like heroin had. So, you know, it fit the market. And boy, there were people ready to fill that market.

MARTIN: But you make the argument that the crack epidemic didn't happen by accident. You argue that there was a specific political and economic environment in the '80s that helped fuel the rise of crack. In fact, you have some very pointed language about this in the book. You say that the history of the crack era turns the American dream upside down. Talk a little bit more about that.

FARBER: You know, when populations are decimated by economic dislocation, they'll turn to what they can to get through the day. And back in the '80s and '90s, that's sort of when deindustrialization occurred, when jobs fled center cities. It left a lot of poor people, disproportionately poor black people, kind of adrift. And I think crack really tragically filled the void that a lot of people felt in those days.

MARTIN: And you outline some of the legislation that was passed in the '80s, including the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, to try to curb the distribution and the use of crack. The impact of that is something that is much discussed, you know, even now, right? But just talk about what the intention was and how it kind of went and took off in a direction that I think perhaps people did not anticipate.

FARBER: So I think genuinely, people were scared that crack was going to just flow all over the United States. And there was a kind of moral panic associated with crack cocaine. And a lot of people who really didn't understand or know anything about it had the power to legislate about it. And so what we saw was the infamous bill passed in 1986 that put away crack dealers for basically 100 times (laughter) the severity of those who sold powder cocaine.

I mean, it was all cocaine. There shouldn't have been that kind of big difference. But there was a decision that somehow crack was so much more terrifying that people who dealt in it should be mercilessly incarcerated.

MARTIN: What's your theory about why it is that they were so much more determined to be so draconian when it came to crack as opposed to powder cocaine when chemically, they're the same?

FARBER: I think part of it was based on some real concerns. Crack was a substance that became easily habituated to. In other words, people became addicted to crack much quicker and more easily than they did to powder cocaine. So I think people were scared. They were scared that this drug really was evil and deadly. Now, it turns out pharmacologically, it isn't that different. But it certainly appeared that way. And there were 500,000 probably by 1990 who were really being destroyed by crack cocaine.

And people saw that. It was in their community. It was in their families. So it isn't just sort of, like, distant upper middle class people were scared of this drug. It scared everybody. So, you know, it was merciless, but it was not completely irrational that people wanted to somehow put a stop to crack cocaine addiction.

MARTIN: So if there was political buy-in from a lot of the people who were most affected by it, then how do you call it racist?

FARBER: Well, you know, racism is a tricky word in this application because a lot of black politicians in the late 1980s were huge purveyors of punishing people who used crack. But I think the ways in which incarceration tended to focus so draconianly on African Americans made it kind of objectively racist.

I mean, here were millions of people using powder cocaine who just were having their lives destroyed by being put into jail for it - you know, to go to jail for five years for having a handful of crack vials in your possession, even if it was with intent to distribute. Those people were making $150, and they go to jail for five years and be marked as felons for the rest of their lives. That's pretty harsh treatment. And the fact that that became overwhelmingly black Americans - I mean, that's hard not to see as objectively racist.

MARTIN: And there are those who would argue that that very harsh criminal justice response is what led to the sort of waning of crack. And you say no, you don't think so.

FARBER: Yeah. I don't think that sort of looking at best practices in social sciences makes sense. Yes, it did contribute. But more, it was just people in the community watch what happened to people who became crack addicts. I mean, imagine being 15 years old and watching your 20-year-old brother or watching your father become a crack addict. It's, like, why in the heck would I do that?

MARTIN: Well, you know, that kind of loops us back to the current moment, the opioid crisis. I would prefer to use addiction crisis because it's not just opioids, but opioids play a huge role in it. A very different reaction, I think, that we're seeing from authorities, from politicians, from the public. Why do you think that is?

FARBER: Yeah. There's some irony here, isn't there? I mean, the opioid crisis, the heroin crisis, prescription drug crisis are far worse than crack ever was.

MARTIN: And so in the sense of...

FARBER: People dead.

MARTIN: ...What, the number of people dead or...

FARBER: Yeah, the people number dead, the people number addicted. I mean, it's an order of magnitude worse. In terms of deaths, it's even worse than that. But, you know, different distribution system. This is coming through pharmaceutical companies, pain doctors, clinics. Then it goes underground. And those people aren't facing prison the same way crack dealers did.

I like to think part of this difference between how we treat the opioid addiction problem and crack is we've learned something. We've learned that public health solutions are probably better than carcial (ph) state solutions. But, you know, it's hard not to also see a kind of racial component to this. The opioid epidemic starts with rural white people. The other started with inner city black people. You know, that's part of the American story, I'm afraid.

MARTIN: That's David Farber. He's the author of "Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, And The Decade Of Greed." He's a professor of history at the University of Kansas, and we reached him there.

Professor Farber, thanks so much for talking to us.

FARBER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.