He also found it good against asthma and stomach disorders, and thought it would help a colleague overcome addiction to morphine. Instead it made him hopelessly psychotic, imagining snakes crawling under his skin. Noted American physicians tried it also, were impressed, and then also had bad experiences. Thus a Washington Post headline of 1887: “The Cocaine Habit. There have been only a few victims, but these are incurable.”
And then came crack. That’s a sort of free base, but sometimes with adulterants such as speed or lidocaine. And it’s more easily made. A cocaine hydrochloride solution is heated in a pan together with baking soda, yielding a solid chunk to be divided into hundreds of tiny “rocks”; these go into little vials— five or six to a vial that’s sold for $15 or $20. Seems cheap? Yes, sometimes a kid can buy a vial with a couple of rocks for five dollars, or even three. But in fact it’s quite profitable. An ounce of adulterated cocaine bought on the street for, say, $1,000, plus 60 cents for baking soda, can turn into $7,000 in crack sales. The effects make devastating news.
Crack houses for buying and smoking multiply-50 in Seattle, 75 in Dallas, hundreds around Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, apartment in barcelona. Dealers with submachine guns infest low-income housing projects and entire poor neighborhoods, terrifying residents. Some employ children as young as eight as runners and lookouts; they’re less likely to be arrested. Teenage street sellers making hundreds of dollars a day become role models for schoolmates bedazzled by their status symbols: Fancy warm-up suits and athletic shoes. Beepers. Heavy gold chains. A BMW! Young mothers smoking crack all day sell their food stamps to buy more, next the furniture; then comes prostitution. Three Philadelphia boys— aged 15, 13, and 12 —are given crack to sell, return with too little money, so the dealers start shooting; only the youngest survives.
How the impact of cocaine cuts across socioeconomic levels comes home to me in Atlanta at the annual conference of PRIDE, the Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education. With a thousand well-dressed parents are a thousand cheerful well-scrubbed youngsters, like those you’d meet in the high school of any well-to-do suburb. Quite a few of them had cocaine problems but have overcome them—though the stories I hear some tell are startling. Of lying, stealing, loss of self-respect, wanting to die.
It hits me even harder at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Washington, D. C. These friendly people, supporting each other as they tell how they’ve struggled to hold their cocaine craving in check—they look just like neighbors I’ve known. Teachers, a government official, a salesman, a journalist.
At least they could get help. Health insurance typically covers a month of treatment. After all, the American Medical Association, in June 1987, declared that all “drug dependencies” are diseases. But what if you have no medical insurance? You’ll call some hot line, probably be referred to some public agency, and then wait and wait for weeks and months.