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The Untold Story of How Crack Shaped the Justice System

In a new book, a journalist wrestles with how lessons from America’s response to crack resonate in the opioid era.

Donovan X. Ramsey, a Black man with short hair, wears a white shirt, vest and green pants, and stands in front of a newsstand.
Donovan X. Ramsey is the author of the book, “When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era.”

One of the most confounding legacies of the crack epidemic is that everyone has heard of crack — we all think we know what we need to know — but few of us actually understand it. That’s not an accident, argues journalist Donovan X. Ramsey in his new book, “When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era.” Public information about crack was often more hyperbole than science, Ramsey writes, and those who used crack were portrayed as villains, to our detriment, as lawmakers and law enforcement tried to respond to the drug’s explosion in popularity.

An orange book cover reads, "When Crack was King," Donovan X. Ramsey.  At the bottom of the cover is a photo of a Black boy looking out over a cityscape.

Over the course of five years, Ramsey, The Marshall Project’s former commentary editor, criss-crossed the country, interviewing hundreds of people whose lives were touched by crack. He spoke with dealers and users, their family members, politicians and community leaders, and researchers and scientists, and he has written a beautiful mosaic of a book through their eyes. “When Crack Was King” follows four people through the ravages of the crack epidemic and out the other side, and he intersperses their personal narratives with history and politics to put their experiences in context.

Elgin Swift sold crack as a teenager on the streets of Yonkers, New York, after his father descended into addiction and left him to fend for himself. Lennie Woodley grew up amid trauma and abuse in Los Angeles and turned to sex work at an early age to support her addiction, after she discovered crack could make her pain go away. Kurt Schmoke was a three-term mayor of Baltimore who steered the city through the worst of the epidemic. And Shawn McCray came of age in the projects in Newark, New Jersey, with one foot in the streets and one in the world of prep school, college and basketball.

The Marshall Project spoke with Ramsey about the book and the lessons he learned while writing it. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Marshall Project: In the history that you tell, all of these policing tactics — stop and frisk, broken windows, mandatory minimums — all of those had their origins in the crack epidemic. So much of what our modern-day criminal justice system looks like was born of the crack epidemic.

Ramsey: Policing today would be unrecognizable to folks pre-crack. When people talk about “community policing,” that was much more commonplace. But the fear around crack created policies like “broken windows” policing, which was really a part of this dragnet that said that we needed to essentially overpolice these neighborhoods to reduce violent crime and drug crimes. On the sentencing side, you [saw] discretion being taken away from judges in the form of mandatory minimum sentences, which say that offenders [should] get significant amounts of time for even small crimes, and that [led] to a bloat of the prison system on the federal level. And then naturally the states follow. The crack epidemic completely reshaped the legal landscape.

And I didn’t know that originally. The first question that I had was, ‘What is crack?,’ in a very fundamental way. This substance has had this outsized impact on our lives and on policy, and most people don’t know what it is, even though they have strong feelings about it.

Why do you think that is? What is the prevailing misconception? What do you want people to know about it?

The biggest misconception about crack in particular is that it was a substance like no other. Therefore, it required these draconian policies and responses.

There was a tremendous amount of propaganda and misinformation around crack. And that was intentional, to really scare people. So [former first lady] Nancy Reagan visited hundreds of cities across the country, giving out the message of “Just say no” to kids, and included in that message was a lot of misinformation about crack as this superdrug that, again, was immediately addictive. People often said it was the most addictive thing that was ever created, that it could kill you instantly. And because people believed crack was a superdrug, then they believed that crack users were this separate class of people. To understand that crack is the same substance as powder cocaine, I think creates a huge shift in people’s understanding, especially [for] people who have used powder cocaine.

I think that most people, if you ask them where they got their understanding of drugs broadly, they would point to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and the PSAs that we saw in the ’80s and ’90s. This was a nonprofit created by marketers. These weren’t drug scientists. These weren’t policy experts. This was Madison Avenue creatives, who wanted to make the most impactful messaging — not necessarily the most accurate messaging. I always think about the most famous ad, which is “This is your brain on drugs,” with the fried egg. When you think about that incredible ad, there’s no information in it.

One of the most punch-in-the-gut lines in the whole book for me was when you described crack as “the ideal drug for a grief-stricken people.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you meant by that.

Being somebody [who] was born in 1987, so toward the tail end of the crack epidemic, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what life was like before crack. Because crack predates me. And I really struggled with understanding why people would use a substance that was all the things that the government and PSAs said it was: immediately addictive, maybe deadly [and would] basically ruin your life and turn you into a zombie. That was the education that I got about crack. So it was really hard for me to wrap my mind around why so many people made the choice to use and then abuse that substance. It was listening to the conversation around the opioid epidemic that actually opened my eyes to this idea of disaffection.

There is something that can happen not just in an individual, but in a community of people, that could make them susceptible to a drug epidemic: Dissatisfaction with the progress made from the Civil Rights Movement, the devastation of losing leaders like Dr. King, who really exemplified so many great virtues of the Black community, [and] the frustration of industrialization taking jobs out of urban centers — all of those things sort of create a dynamic where people feel hopeless. And when people feel hopeless, they want to find ways to feel good.

You talked in the book about how folks who had grown up wearing holes in their shoes suddenly had access to more money than they’d ever seen in their whole life. You wrote that, “The advent of freebase was their Gold Rush, their Homestead Act, their Prohibition.” Could you talk a little bit about, not just the emotional hurt that people brought to this era, but also the economic circumstances?

I interviewed hundreds of people, and when I talked to drug dealers, I was amazed at how much they sounded like hardened capitalists that you would read about in Bloomberg magazine. They talk in very clear and frank terms about the American dream, and about their ambitions, and about the very clear calculation that they made about the opportunities that were available to them, including drug dealing. One of the characters in the book, Shawn McCray, grew up in Newark’s housing projects, and he had the opportunity to attend college on a basketball scholarship. But he [made] the calculation that he had a better chance of achieving a middle-class life by selling drugs than getting drafted into the NBA. The sad thing is that that is probably a very accurate calculation that he made. That the odds were better for him. Of course, there were more risks associated. Drug dealing was something that he had much clearer and easier access to than any career that he actually wanted.

And in the end, he was right, right? I mean, it was the way that he made it through.

Yeah. The Shawn chapters are very hard for me as a Black man, as somebody that has been a Black boy, to see Shawn making so many poor choices. When I would talk to him, and then when I was writing the book up, my stomach would just be in knots, wanting him to just do better. But Shawn was absolutely right. He was able to make a gamble, essentially. And for him, the gamble paid off. And for many of his friends it didn’t. I think that that is no different than what you see in some of the riskiest businessmen and venture capitalists, right? They all kind of skirt the law to whatever degree of tolerance they have. And you win or you lose. Shawn just happened to be playing that game with a very charged substance. And one that was illegal.

One of the interesting things about the story of drug dealers during the crack epidemic is that it tells us a lot about the American spirit, about what it means to be ambitious in this country during that period of time.

With Shawn in particular, you don’t let him off the hook, but you do try to understand him. The phrase you used was that he and his friends were “victims of Newark’s neglect and agents of harm in the city.” They get to be both. There's no such thing as good guys and bad guys in this situation.

I tried to give Shawn, as the narrator of his life, the same amount of respect and grace as I would someone like [then-Sen.] Joe Biden, who was fighting the crack epidemic on the other hand. You have a person trying to do the best in the situation that they’re in, making some good decisions, and some decisions that aren’t so good.

And also how the context sets them up for that to be a rational decision — for the bad decision to be the rational decision.

Exactly. Which is, hopefully, something that helps us get past this really damaging “superpredator” idea that was put forward in the ’80s and ’90s. This idea that people like Shawn, were just these monsters that needed to be “brought to heel,” was the term that Hillary Clinton used.

But even the options that were good were incredibly fraught. One of the great things that I think Shawn talks about, and I hope that comes through in the book, is how rare the opportunities for upward mobility are for poor people of color as they grow up, but then also how lonely and tricky the road can be, as you try to walk the straight and narrow [path where] you’re typically the only one. You’re in spaces that are often discriminatory and where you face a lot of resistance. And he chose the path of least resistance, and one that was where he would have the company of friends and people that loved him and would treat him well. And it’s a shame that the best the country had to offer somebody like Shawn was drug dealing.

Another thing the book does a really beautiful job with was drawing a very clear line between drug use and drug politics. How much we place the blame on individual human beings, but how much also of the epidemic was born from policy choices. You talked about how President Ronald Reagan’s policies failed to curb rates of drug use. But what it did do is sell people on this idea that fighting crime meant targeting drug users and drug dealers, and we’re still living with the fallout from that.

One of the hard things about drug epidemics — including the one that we’re living through now with opioids — is that drug abuse and addiction seem like this individual choice that people are making to destroy themselves and their families and their lives. But when you see it happening at scale to entire communities, and all these people that have socioeconomic things in common, then you have to understand that there are larger trends that are pushing people toward this choice. The policy solutions that we had, starting with Reagan — but going straight through to Bill Clinton, and including lots of people on both sides of the aisle — were really political solutions. They were political solutions to what were public health problems, public safety problems. And I think ultimately, that’s why they were ineffective, because they weren’t actually looking at creating a drug-free America. They were looking at getting people reelected.

There’s no actual evidence that any of those policies reduce crime. You do see this correlation between the decline of the crack epidemic and a decline in violent crime — murders in particular — but there’s no evidence that policing actually drove that decline. What we actually see is a ton of great research that crack was a trend just like any other. It declined because the next cohort of young people did not take it up. So crack essentially ran its course. And as the epidemic declined, then you see a reduction in drug-related violent crime.

What lessons from the crack era can we bring to bear on the opioid crisis, on the epidemic of fentanyl overdoses? Have we learned any lessons, and where are we still repeating the mistakes of the past?

Harm reduction is key. Communities of color didn’t really get harm reduction policies. But there were harm reduction practices within the communities that actually kept people alive and kept communities together long enough for the storm to pass. Things like grandmothers who took grandchildren in, completely separate from the state, and the way that that held communities together long enough for mothers and fathers to get clean. I think about churches that did gun buybacks and gun surrender programs. I think about community watches that busted up crack houses, told drug dealers to get off of the corner. Those were things that people did on the grassroots level that I think ultimately helped the affected community survive. It would be great to see the federal government actually invest in those operations where they’re happening.

One of the things that we can do is revisit the laws, the mandatory minimum sentences that came into play during the crack era that really took discretion away from judges and led to the growth of mass incarceration in this country. One really worth mentioning is the 100-to-one crack disparity that was written into law during Reagan, that under [President Barack] Obama got reduced to 18-to-one, but there’s still a disparity. Despite the fact that we know that powder and crack cocaine are the exact same substance chemically, that people still receive different sentences for their possession. That’s a shame. And that suggests to me that we haven’t come far enough.

And one last thing that I think is worth mentioning, which is that the Biden administration now supports safe injection sites as a harm-reduction program for the opioid crisis. But one of the ways that’s blocked around the country is this crack house law, on the books from the crack era, that says that you can’t have an establishment for the purpose of distributing drugs. So, Joe Biden in the ’80s and ’90s is blocking [President] Joe Biden today. Those are things that we have to make right.

Beth Schwartzapfel Twitter Email is a staff writer who often covers addiction and health, probation and parole, and LGBTQ+ issues. She is the reporter and host of Violation, a podcast examining an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.