Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Crack Myths Die Hard

It’s one sentence in the Washington Post story on the potential change in federal sentencing guidelines for possession of crack cocaine.

The commission is taking up one of the most racially sensitive issues of the two-decades-old war on drugs. Jurists and civil rights organizations have long complained that the commission's guidelines mandate more stringent federal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, which usually involve African Americans, than for crimes involving powder cocaine, which generally involve white people. The chemical properties of the drugs are the same, though crack is potentially more addictive.
It seems that even as the public starts to realize that crack cocaine wasn’t some super-drug that demanded we lock up nearly a third of all black men in the country for mere possession, the myth that crack was somehow worse than powder cocaine dies very hard.

It was only a month ago in fact that the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Five Myths About That Demon Crack.” And the Journal of American Medical Association also released a study that disputed the notion that crack cocaine was more chemically addictive than the powder version.

I understand that myths die hard. That’s why the one sentence in the Washington Post story is conflicted. It’s saying that crack is both chemically the same as cocaine but also potentially more addictive. Of course this is contrarian. If the substances are chemically the same they should then logically have the same pharmacological effects. It almost feels like the writer, Darryl Fears, sort of vaguely understood that crack wasn’t quite as bad as had been touted but decided to hedge just in case.

Again, bad information almost can’t be erased from our brains. I have no doubt that movies from the late 80s, early 90s like New Jack City and Colors that hyped crack cocaine drug wars probably left a huge impact in white middle class Americans psyche that “crack” was somehow way worse than cocaine and it takes more than a heap of medical studies to dislodge the myth.

It’s interesting that the same day that the U.S. Sentencing Commission is scheduled to consider a proposal to make the new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive (which would release many people from prison who are serving long sentences) there is a story about a package of three reports that show that African Americans have experienced downward mobility in the last generation.
Forty-five percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle class in 1968 -- a stratum with a median income of $55,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars -- grew up to be among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners, with a median family income of $23,100. Only 16 percent of whites experienced similar downward mobility. At the same time, 48 percent of black children whose parents were in an economic bracket with a median family income of $41,700 sank into the lowest income group.
The researchers at Pew Charitable Trusts don’t have an explanation for why African Americans might have experienced downward mobility but I would like to posit that at least part of the reason was drug sentencing laws in the 80s.

I understand that drugs and drug addiction is a problem and no one wants to be living next to junkies. But how our culture response to such problems will show whether we mitigate the issue or simply creates new problems by creating classes of laws that, by design or by accident, end up targeting only one class of people.

10 comments:

:-jon said...

Not sure what WaPost means by "chemical properites"? My McMurry, Fay Chemistry (2004) book says combustion, tarishing, rusting are chemical properties the "do involve a change in chemical makeup." pg 7
For reference, ice and water have same chemical properties.

Here's an explanation to "chemical properties same...potentially more addictive".

First, how fast does the various delivery method of drug to brain take? and is that important?

"evidence exists showing a greater abuse liability, greater propensity for dependence, and more severe consequences when cocaine is smoked ...or injected intravenously ... compared with intranasal use.... The crucial variables appear to be the immediacy, duration, and magnitude of cocaine's effect, as well as the frequency and amount of cocaine used rather than the form of the cocaine."
D. K. Hatsukami and M. W. Fischman
JAMA Nov 20, 1996
http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/276/19/1580

Why is speed of delivery to brain important?

"the rate at which cocaine is delivered influences both its neurobiological impact and its ability to induce a form of drug experience-dependent plasticity implicated in addiction."
Samaha et al,
JourNeuroscience, jul 14, 2004
http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/reprint/24/28/6362.pdf

So, to sum up, faster is better high, and better is more addictive.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an example of injecting race when race ain't there. Also, I think Newscat is doing some logical leaps that would make Carl Lewis envious--New Jack City comes out, the audience eventually become legislators, they pass laws based on Wesley Snipes' performance, and BOOM! The Black Man again takes the hit.

I find it funny that WaPo cites several Ivy League types who are all stunned that black mobility is down from 1968. People like Thomas Sowell (Race and Culture: A World View) and Shelby Steele (White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights) have dealt with this issue for years, and have provided a lot more convincing reasons for this trend than New Jack City.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

In fairness to Jon I'm not sure even the reporter knew what exactly the difference or sameness exists between crack and powedered cocaine.

But the entire point of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines changing is that there is ample evidence that there IS NO DIFFERENCE between the two drugs. There does exist a difference in both the users and the typical circumstances between the two, meaning that crack users may get more addicted than powdered cocaine users. But that has more to do with the environment surrounding the crack users (availability of product, cheaper price, surrounding poverty and depression of area) than with the chemical properties of the drug itself. (Meaning if I smoked crack I would be as likely to become addicted as if I snorted powder, because I'm *ME* living in my middle-class world which does not encourage greater usage.)

Jim, as for my mental leaps from movies to laws, I probably did overstate the direct link between ONE movie and enacting any specific laws. But I do believe the culture of "urban drug movies" that came out in the late 80s-early 90s helped contribute to a cultural perspective by whites to view crack and drug addiction as a) worse than it was and b) drug users as a whole more of a danger.

I do believe the movies helped create an atmosphere of fear of the big scary black crack addict WHO IS COMING TO TAKE OVER YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD, MUWHAHAHAHAHAHA, which made white politicians go for the "lock 'em up for decades" approach. It also in a way dehumanized the whole problem. Some of those movies just make you look at drug addicts like they are less than human. (If you really want to see a good portrayal, I recommend watch HBO's The Wire.)

But rather than deal with the "crack" problem in poor black neighborhood no one was then forced to deal with the "poor" problem in poor neighborhood. As if crack was the ONLY problem those neigborhood (and their residents) had.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I am the last to disagree that Hollyweird puts out films that inaccurately portray culture and issues (I could try to incur your wrath by mentioning "If These Walls Could Talk" or "The Cider House Rules," but I won't). I never watched New Jack City or Colors, but I agree that those types of films could skew the perception of the reality. I don't dispute your point that those movies may overstate the crack problem.

(I would recommend "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood" by David Simon and Ed Burns, for a look at drug culture in the inner city.)

My only point is that I don't believe your assertion that legislation against drugs have hurt black income or black culture in general. I found your last paragraph to be completely unsupportable. I am not a guy who supports overly punitive laws, but saying drug laws have hurt black mobility is mind-boggling.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

I've heard about The Corner. It was the basis for the TV show Homicide and The Shield(?) I believe. I know that The Wire is either written or produced by the same guy who wrote The Corner so there is a connection.

I guess the reason I believe that overly punitive drug laws are part of the reason for downward mobility (combined with many, many other factors) is that they have disperately impacted the black community. So you have people who might be productive members of society (creating wealth and all that jazz) instead get locked up for long spells.

Meanwhile the fact this also ends up targeting african american MEN also winds up effecting family structures. So in the 1960s you'd have a guy in his twenties working in a machinist factory. Maybe he smoked a little weed, maybe he drank. But he had a decent paying job (along with his wife) and they managed to save money and buy a house (in a neighborhood that in 20 years will experience a lot of decline).

Instead now you have a young man, maybe he does a little bit of drugs, maybe he's just AROUND people who do drugs, and there's a constant police prescene in his neighborhood. Police now see all young African American men as "suspects." So he get stopped over and over again. maybe one time they find something, maybe one time he's driving in a car with his buddies and one of them has drugs on him.

And let's say he has done some drugs. Maybe he's got some crack on him. But now he gets a 5 year sentence (there goes five years of trying to earn a living, gaining skills, etc). And when he comes out of prison it's not going to be so easy to earn capital (good jobs, etc.)

And to some extend the desire to lock up "dealers" is also a bit of a problem. It doesn't take much to be labled a "dealer." And dealing does become a way to make money when there aren't other opportunities.

Again, I'm not denying that drugs themselves are not an inherantly negative force in the communities themselves. A lot of black folks themselves are also very happy to have their neighborhoods cleaned up. But they don't want police walking around treating every single black male from age 13-40 as a "suspect."

And I posit if you have cops in your neighborhood in a heavy prescene, and they stop you often enough, they will find something. And it will also create an atmosphere of anger and resentment, which is not going to be good for a productive neighborhood.

So it's a feedback loop. The harder the laws, the worse the black community fares (not better). Because the harsh laws are worsening the symptoms of a drug problem but not stopping the cause (poverty).

Anonymous said...

I think you are mixing up cause and effect. It is the drugs that are the problem. If people are picked up for pushing drugs, they are the ones hurting the neighborhood, not the cops. I do agree that the drug problem is systemic, but I think you are mistaken if you say poverty is caused by arresting blacks (or whites, for that matter) who are pushing drugs, even if you don't believe crack is worse than whiskey or the MJ.

FYI, The Corner was written by the same guy who wrote, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," another excellent book and the basis for the show "Homicide: Life on the Streets." (David Simon also created and wrote for The Wire). The Corner, which had a mini-series on HBO some years ago, follows several people affected by drugs and the welfare system. The pushers and users are portrayed sympathetically, but their stories are tragic. And their problems aren't caused by cops arresting too many breadwinners--it is caused by the white rock they smoke.

It is the welfare state and the drugs bringing them down, not arrests. Arresting the drug pushers and distributors by cops and government is intended to give the people of these neighborhoods a CHANCE.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

I think I've found the source of our disagreement. I think arresting the people isn't actually helping the ARRESTED.

You are making a distinction between the drug users and the "rest of the black community." I am not, I am including them as part of the community.

Again, you have a person arrested for carrying around a small rock. He goes to jail for five years. Is that "fixing" the community or not?

Anonymous said...

But Rachel, people are responsible for their own actions. Again, I don't disagree that perhaps punishments can be too harsh at times. And I do feel bad for the drug user. But I think you minimize the destructive aspect of the drug, both to the person, the family of the person, and the community.

The guy with the rock didn't buy it at the nearest Rite Aid. THe fact he has it means he has invited a criminal element into the neighborhood. We have laws to protect the innocent. Cops are cops, not social workers.

While I agree with your stated compassion for the drug user, I am not willing to accept an alternative. NOT arresting the guy who is on crack or coke doesn't help the comminity, his family, or him. And telling him he is only being arrested because of his race REALLY helps no one.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

I think this is one of the major divides between liberals and conservatives.

Every case that one examines, from drug addicts to fat people, will be governed by individual circumstances and, yes, personal choice.

But I like to take a broader viewer and notice trends like the fact that one particular group of people is more effected by certain trends. By taking a broader view you can see what influences all of those "personal" choices and why, on a macro-level, trends are happening. And then it becomes easier to effect a change on a macro-level rather than micro-level personal blaming.

Yes, each drug user made a choice. But if you want to look and see why drug usage runs rampant through certain communities (but not others) that means going beyond asking why X person decided to use drugs.

I think only by looking at the macro-level can a government/society actually work to effect change. So while sometimes I think I do dismiss individualism its only because I'm more interested in attending to the problem as it effects a community rather than "Why did bobby smith" do drugs. I'd rather look at why Bobby did drugs in a community that seems to have a disprotionate amount of drug usage. Sure, we can place all the blame on Bobby for his choices, but will that get at all there happens to be a lot of "Bobbys" in the same area of the same race and the same socio-economic status that also just happened to make the same "choice."

So Do I think X drug user shouldn't be arrested when found carrying around crack...its more like asking "isn't there a better way to solve drug problems in a community besides lock them up?"

Anonymous said...

We are not in disagreement on your last point. But if freedom and choice are important (and they are), then it is the drugs that are limiting choice and freedoms for the people in the neighborhoods. We can argue about the best way to solve that, and again, I agree that just locking people up isn't enough.

I am sure there are a lot of reasons that drugs have caused such a problem among lower economic areas, particularly in black neighborhoods. My opinion is government programs contributed to the problem, particularly in the 70's and 80's. The black family was hit hard by the Great Society.

I just don't understand your solution, though, or even see that you provide one. What I do think is that arguing that crack is not as addictive as we perceive really is beside the point.

Good topic.

Jim in Cleveland