Rethinking Crack

Rethinking Crack

Columbia's First Tenured Black Scientist Dr. Carl Hart Makes Us Rethink What We Believe About Crack and Other Drugs

by asha bandele, June 12, 2013

Rethinking Crack

misguided policy making.

Arguably, the most offensive outcome of bad science came in the form of sentencing for those convicted of crack law violations, as opposed to those convicted of powder cocaine law violations. The original law created a disparity in which five grams of crack got offenders a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison; it took 500 grams of powder to trigger the same time. Why? Well, cocaine was associated with the rich and White; crack with the poor and Black.

The sentencing guidelines were, then, a direct assault on our community (which, by the way, uses the drug less than our less targeted White counterparts). Of late, we’re seeing shifts in the sentencing—the Obama administration reduced the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1—but this is still insufficient given that crack and powder cocaine are pharmaceutically the same drug

And more, if minimally 80 percent of the drug-using population in America actually never develop a problematic relationship with a given drug (as Hart and others have widely documented), why then are there only images of the madman or -woman available to us? What else might be afoot here when it comes to crack, meth and other drugs used by more marginalized sectors of our citizenry? Consider that we don’t do this with our nation’s primary drug of choice: alcohol. The image of the drunk is the outlier.

The bottom line is that Hart shoots for an understanding of drugs, how they impact us, and how racism impacts the policy and treatment of people who use drugs. Truth told, we probably aren’t any more afraid of the roughly 10-20 percent of people who are problematic users any more than folks in the 1890s were afraid of their White female friends and relatives who used cocaine, some problematically. The difference then was that we thought of those women as humans who deserved compassion and care, as something like documentary director Eugene Jareki’s The House I Live In points out.

But undergirded by 500 straight-through-the-heart years of de facto dehumanization of our children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and homies to the hate of ourselves that hate produced, we drank the Kool-Aid. We bought into the lies, consciously or not, and gladly separated ourselves from those “other Blacks.” We called them two-dollar hoes, baseheads, nasty crackheads. Gone were our friends and family.

And we never seemed to consider that the arbiters of our problems, including problematic drug use, are likely more attributed to joblessness, isolation and a lack of social anchoring—and the drug war that created a deadly, underground marketplace. Hart’s argument, capsuled, seems to be that rather than trying to remake the Black brain, we undo the policies that cause the Black burden.

Nowhere in the book is that made more poignantly than when he discusses his own fears for his own Black boys, one of whom has cycled in and out of the prison system. He argues that far more deadly to our babies than the drugs themselves has been the drug war, its racist law enforcement and its dumbing down or complete dismissal of life-saving information. Like Hart, I am a parent, and like Hart, I too had to cede one beloved, my stepson, to the vicious hamster wheel that is drugs, prison, drugs again, prison again. And who knows where these losses takes us, how they leave us?

To tell that story, we have needed a voice, threadbare and devoid of Sunday service accouterment in its offering: our policies were based on lies and driven by racism. They provide virtually no help for the 10-20 percent of our citizens who struggle mightily with substance misuse. And they ignore the fact that most people who use drugs do so without experiencing their most harmful effects.

So as I look at the projects that poet Askia Touré said we allowed to replace the pyramids, I’m thinking that if these are the broke-down, dysfunctional houses that Nixon built in 1971, let 2013 be the year we build a house, its foundation truth and compassion. Ultimately that’s what Dr. Hart—this scholar, father, brother, son, friend—is asking us to do: begin once again to lay the bricks to build a place we can all, even the least of these, finally call home.


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