Cocaine in 1980s America: Fine for the Wealthy & Well-Educated; Bad for the Poor

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Crack is Wack Keith Haring
New York City “Crack is Wack” mural first painted in 1986 by artist Keith Haring. Image courtesy of cookiespi on Flickr.

The years directly preceding the American “crack epidemic” of the 1980s are worth re-examining. Cocaine was by no means new, and people had been using and sometimes smoking, or freebasing, the drug for years. In the early eighties, however, many cocaine users were well-educated white professionals, wealthy celebrities, or captains of industry. By about 1986, though, dealers began condensing cocaine into “crack” that people could smoke instead of snort. As the perception of people who used cocaine changed from white and wealthy to Black and poor, every aspect of reporting changed, too. We can see this unfold in real time, by tracking news coverage in the New York Times archive.

Hollywood Cocaine

Robert Lindsey’s front-page story “Pervasive Use of Cocaine Is Reported in Hollywood” appeared in the Times on October 30, 1982. It described how drug use had become so widespread that companies insuring movies had begun to amend their policies to reflect drug-related risks. Lindsey quoted an unpublished survey of stuntwomen that claimed more than half of the women asked actively used drugs or knew someone who did.

NYT Headline Cocaine1
New York Times, October 30, 1982.

Police: Powerless Against the Powerful

Law enforcement conceded that drug use was widespread but claimed to be powerless to stop it. Police alleged that drugs were routinely sold “on many film and television productions sets” and that drug dealers rode “chauffeured limousines” to the “homes of executives, performers and technicians in the film, television and rock music industries.” Los Angeles Police Detective Steve Walker explained, however, “You can’t go to one of those big homes and knock on the door and say, ‘We hear you’re snorting coke inside!’ You need someone inside to help you.”

Medical Voices, Friends to the Affluent

Medical professionals interviewed by the Times often simply described and recounted—instead of demonized—their clients’ drug behaviors. Dr. Ronald Siegel, for example, a psychopharmacologist treating patients in Hollywood, said that “cocaine generally does not impair the work or family life,” and only for a “small percentage of those able to smoke free-base” could the drug be all-consuming. Some users were spending “$2,000 to $12,000 a week,” he said, and it was “not unusual for someone to spend $500,000 to a million dollars a year on cocaine.”

High-Paid Women Freebasing & Having Families? No Problem!

The Times published “Women and Cocaine: A Growing Problem” on February 18, 1985, and also made the first indirect reference to crack as being sold in “rock houses.” Doctors appeared sympathetic to the stresses of (usually white) professional women and mothers who freebased cocaine, but they also espoused negative attitudes about the same behavior among poor women of color.

New York Times, February 18, 1985.

Doctors interviewed for the article said that the drug generally appealed to women who were “under the age of 35, well-educated, and involved in competitive, demanding jobs.” Dr. Blanch Frank, of the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services, said he was “very concerned about females and cocaine.” He worried that “with increasing use and increasing problems” women were “getting into trouble with the law, with their employers and with their families.”

“Getting into trouble with the law” is an interesting turn of phrase, implying these women were probably not charged or punished. In contrast, when poor Black women engaged the same behavior, the state aggressively pursued prosecution, including the rarely used charge of “prenatal crime,” for mothers using drugs during pregnancy.

Dr. Ronald J. Dougherty, another addiction specialist, said that the women he treated “wouldn’t do heroin because it’s dirty, but cocaine is clean.” They “don’t inject cocaine—they snort or free-base it. It is something the jet set does.” Dr. Arnold Washton offered a sociological perspective on the problem, arguing that “more women in male domains, in medicine, in banking, in law … become targets for cocaine use.” These women, he explained, were often “juggling being a wife and mother with performing on the job.”

Nannette Stone, a therapist photographed for the story, reported that some “women stopped using cocaine while pregnant,” but resumed once they got back into their old routines. She even knew of women who “timed their use of it around breastfeeding schedules.”

Another doctor, who had recently opened a clinic in Los Angeles expecting to “get the rich Hollywood crowd” was disappointed when the people walking through his door turned out to be “more people from blue-collar and lower-class sections of Los Angeles.” In California, he explained, there was “a phenomenon … called ‘rock house,’ where people sell free-base cocaine already prepared in ‘rock’ for $25.” Then, without explanation or follow-up, he stated: “The issue of use is not women versus men, but the fact that people without much money can buy it for $25.”

Drug Use By the Poor: “Crack” Becomes Black

Nine months later, in September 1986, crack was again splashed across the Times’s pages. This time, however, the newspaper presented its readers a very different image—including a graphic illustration—of “crack” cocaine users and dealers.

NYT Cocaine Graphic
“Crack As Scapegoat,” New York Times, September 16, 1986.

Over the next several years of press coverage, little sympathy remained as smoking cocaine transitioned from an activity of professional women and mothers to one of poor Black mothers. When women working in finance, medicine, or law smoked cocaine while pregnant they scheduled drug use around their responsibilities and had normal children. When poor minority women smoked crack, on the other hand, they became unfit mothers giving birth to defective “crack babies.”

There were now no psychotherapists rationalizing and explaining drug use as a way to relieve the stresses of living in poverty, dealing with the legacy of racism and discrimination, or experiencing existential dread. Instead, readers heard from experts speculating about minority and poor communities. Coryl Jones, a National Institute of Drug Abuse researcher, for example, made the astounding claim that “prenatal exposure” to crack was “interfering with the central core of what it is to be human.” He based his assertion not on evidence, but on conjecture. From his perspective, children born to Black mothers using cocaine were biologically defective. Without costly interventions, he argued, they would be “unable to develop into adults with basic employment skills and unable to form close human relationships.”

While the “crack baby” fiction perpetuated by America’s most esteemed reporters and newspapers is well-known, it was only a portion of the baseless coverage about crack in the mid-1980s. “Drug beat” reporters like Peter Kerr used innuendo and unproven claims to associate the use of crack by Black women to an increase in AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Despite these lurid allegations, Kerr later conceded that “No conclusive data has been gathered to prove the link between crack, the smokable form of cocaine, and the spread of AIDS”. He reported instead that “several top health officials” simply “believe the link exists because of the rise of syphilis in crack-infested cities” (June 29, 1988).

So What?

In some sense, we are rehashing well-known topics in the history race and drug policy. At the same time, unanswered questions remain. If mothers smoking cocaine were responsible for “crack babies,” why were white professional women in 1985 seemingly immune to these consequences? And, importantly, why did the New York Times—or other contemporary observers—not notice or comment upon these jarring inconsistencies about the supposed effects of smoking cocaine?

One important lesson that we should draw from this vital history: drugs by themselves do not have the power to devastate communities or cause “instant addiction.” Drugs can, however, exacerbate underlying social problems like poverty, lack of healthcare, and systemic racism.

As today’s drug enforcement regime too often continues to disproportionately target poor and minority communities—while infrequently applying the same level of scrutiny to the wealthiest zip codes—the New York Times’s 1980s coverage of the “variable” effects of smoking cocaine should remind us to be skeptical about dominant drug narratives.

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