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Crack at the Edge of the World

It is clinically and physically possible to inhale a heart-stopping dose of crack cocaine. Yet in the majority of death-by-rock cases in Tampa and other urban centers during the drug’s heyday in the Eighties and the years since, the cocaine dilute has been no more than a contributing factor.
In fact most crack-related fatalities were caused not by toxic rock but by lead poisoning courtesy first of small-caliber handguns and then by increasingly high-powered automatic weapons, often wielded in crimes auxiliary to the actual use of the drug. As convenience store and gas station clerks were gunned down for twenty dollars by desperate rock fiends and hollow-points blasted through children’s bedroom windows, crack’s collateral victims came, almost obsessively, the attention of affluent, white Floridians.
Throughout the Seventies and the early Eighties, Tampa Bay had a fearless if uneasy relationship with cocaine, the party drug of the wealthy and popular. In 1980, suffering hallucinations and insomnia, comedian Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine — the drug is rendered with ether making it smokable as well as highly flammable — and suddenly it seemed the free ride the suburban white powder had winkingly got in the media was over, becoming the gritty slush of the ghetto.

Juvenile Ibis, August 2007
Freebasing, in which cocaine hydrochloride was chemically converted was clearly too uncontrollable for even the most high-craving fiends. Crack — a mixture of coke, ammonia, baking soda, and other filler ingredients solidified into rough pellets for consumption via a glass pipe — was more stable. Containing only about ten percent pure cocaine, it was also much less expensive than the polar powder inhaled in discos, selling for as little as ten dollars a hit.
The physical effects of smoking crack are instant, extremely pleasurable, — and very brief. Like modern-day scourge meth, crack produces a spurt of intense euphoria, reduced hunger, and trenchant wakefulness .As the rush evaporates after as little as fifteen minutes, these sensations are replaced by an intense depression and the irrational but seemingly irresistible desire for more crack.
The so-called crack epidemic victimized mostly the poor, and inordinately the black, so much so that claims by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton that crack was introduced to African American population centers by the CIA were taken quite seriously. Throughout most of the Nineties, gangs dueled for crack-selling corners in housing projects in Tampa and St. Petersburg with frequently fatal results, while police waged a “War on Drugs” in those communities and the justice system executed a no-tolerance-for-possession policy which resulted in insanely long sentences for those caught with just a few rocks.
In 2006, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., of the Harvard University Society of Fellows, and Steven D. Levitt of the University of Chicago and American Bar Foundation released a 65-page report titled Measuring the Impact of Crack Cocaine in which they and their research associates, using originally devised algorithms, literally measured crack’s effects on black populations in centers the size of Tampa Bay.
Using variables and equations as tepid-seeming as “ {(2)Crack = P Black + ? Hispanic+ ? White},” the study reveals, in dry academic prose, such chilling facts as “According to our estimates, crack can account for a 100-155 percent increase in black male homicides among those aged 14-17, and a change of 40-105 percent for Black male homicide among those aged 18-24” for the years 1985-1999.
Crack furor has died down in all respects since 2000, and some are far more sanguine in their analyses.
Slate columnist and editor-at-large Jack Shafer castigated newspapers in an August 23, 2005 column titled “Crack Then, Meth Now” for buying drug hysteria wholesale.
“What worries a growing number of drug experts is that the cry of wolf about instant addiction may backfire,” Shafer wrote. “Exaggerated warnings about demon rum at the turn of the century sparked derision; the 1936 scare movie, Reefer Madness became a cult film for jeering potheads in the ’60s and early ’70s. And that in turn, helped foster the delusion that cocaine itself was safe.
“Among widely used drugs, nicotine is by far the most addictive. According to Jack Henningfield, NIDA’s chief clinical pharmacologist, fully 90 percent of casual cigarette smokers escalate to the point of addiction.”
A Columbia Journalism Review piece by Mariah Blake debunked the myth of the “crack baby” in a thorough post-mortem of the era — many dubbed so at birth are now thriving young men and women.
Both Shafer and Blake, however, observed populations on the urban East Coast. Here in the Tampa Bay Area, still rankling at the bottom of every category measuring education, health, poverty, and upward mobility, crack remains a cheap ticket to a few minutes’ escape from an inescapably tedious, if not hopeless, existence.