Cocaine hydrochloride (a white powder) and crack (a solidified version of cocaine hydrochloride) come from the coca leaf, grown mostly in the mountains of South America. Cocaine and crack are Schedule II stimulants that produce intense but short-term euphoria and increased energy levels. The chief active ingredient in coca leaves is the alkaloid cocaine, which was isolated in pure form in 1844.
Cocaine and crack produce dependency, addiction, and many other physical and psychological problems. They increase the heart rate and can lead to death by cardiac arrest. Both cocaine and crack also spur anxiety, paranoia, restlessness, and irritability. Because of the obsessive use patterns they produce, cocaine and crack increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and physical assault and victimization among their users.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States experienced its first cocaine epidemic. Soldiers took it to improve their endurance for battle. Cocaine was packaged in tonics and patent medicines to treat sinus illnesses or for eye, nose, and throat surgery. It was also administered to slaves to secure longer workdays and used as a cure for morphine addiction. Rampant addiction followed, with the drug outlawed in 1914 by the Harrison Narcotics Act.
Cocaine reemerged as a popular recreational drug during the 1970s among the upper class, celebrities, and fans of disco. Significant problems, such as the loss of jobs, savings accounts, and family trust, as well as increased health risks, such as overdose and cardiac arrest, soon followed.
Crack cocaine appeared in the early 1980s in the inner city among the lower class. It was packaged in small pieces called rocks (for as little as $5 each), which could be smoked in a small pipe. Users found themselves bingeing for hours or days, smoking up hundreds of dollars of the product and resorting to crime to fund their habits.
Crime and Social Control
The explosion in these two forms of cocaine, and the related social problems that followed, stunned U.S. public and government officials. Sophisticated criminal networks emerged in the inner city to control crack sales. Their use of violence to protect their profits produced significant spikes in rates of homicide and assault. Users resorted to all kinds of theft and sex work to fund their habits.
The federal government responded with numerous laws. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 increased funds to reduce the sales and supply of the drug and broadened mandatory minimum penalties for cocaine sales and possession. The Omnibus Drug Abuse Act of 1988 expanded mandatory minimum penalties for drug users and sellers and established a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. These laws filled U.S. prisons with small-time crack cocaine users and did little to curb the cocaine crime problem. In December 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges could impose shorter sentences for crack cocaine cases, making them more in line with those for powder cocaine. This decision reducing the disparity in prison time for the two crimes had a strong racial dimension, since the majority of crack offenders are black.
Prevalence of Cocaine and Crack Use
Use of cocaine powder persists in the United States, although less so since its reemergence in the 1970s. Although scholars note a drop in crack use as well, they caution against its future escalation because its use also persists in inner-city pockets.
In 2005, approximately 33.7 million Americans reported using cocaine or crack at least once in their lives. This is about one third the amount who ever used marijuana (97.5 million) and 3 times the 11.5 million who ever used club drugs (ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, or Rohypnol). However, cocaine and crack continue to be the most often mentioned illicit drugs in emergency room visits, indicating the problematic nature of their use.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2006. “Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners, 2004.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dudsfp04.pdf).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2016. “NIDA InfoFacts: Crack and Cocaine.” Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/cocaine).
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