There was little doubt in the New York Times that this epidemic was destroying the City.
Despite the more than $500 million spent by the city in the last fiscal year on drug-related enforcement alone – more than twice the amount in fiscal 1986 -the presence of crack is more pervasive, more violent and more insidious in its effect on New Yorkers, particularly the poor.
Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer demanded action to stop this plague, and the Times completely agreed.
These things have happened in the last three years:
* Crack has contributed to the city’s soaring homicide rate. From 1987 to 1988, the number of murders in New York rose 10.4 percent. Drugs, the police say, in particular crack, played a role in at least 38 percent of the 1,867 murders last year, compared with a generally constant rate of 20 percent for years.
* Crack more than tripled the number of cocaine users in the city since 1986. According to New York State statistics, there were 182,000 regular cocaine users in New York City in 1986. That number grew, according to city officials, to an estimated total of 600,000 in 1988, most addicted to the cocaine derivative. City officials did not say what the frequency of use was among the 600,000 regular cocaine users.
* Crack contributed to a tripling of cases in which parents under the influence of drugs abused or neglected their children. In 1986, 2,627 such cases were reported, according to the City Human Resources Administration. In 1988 the number rose to 8,521. Much of the increase was because of crack, said Human Resources Administrator William J. Grinker. Consequently 73 percent of the deaths in abuse and neglect cases in 1987 resulted from parents abusing drugs, up from 11 percent in 1985, according to the statistics.
But that was 1989,* when the crack hysteria was in full bloom. Thirty years later, the view was different.
The old crack laws were a vestige of the racist war on drugs started in the 1970s. Offenders convicted of crack-related offenses, a vast majority of them African-American, received unduly punitive sentences — about 100 times harsher than those imposed on white, more affluent offenders who were convicted of crimes related to powdered cocaine. (Crack is the rock form of powdered cocaine.)
And, indeed, there is a hard statistic coming from the United States Sentencing Commission’s report on the impact of the First Step Act,
Under the First Step Act’s retroactive application, federal inmates across the country who had been sentenced under the old crack laws began to apply for relief — and judges began reducing their sentences, which resulted in many of them being set free. According to the Sentencing Commission, the average sentence reduction has been 73 months, or a little more than six years.
Ninety-one percent of those people who have benefited from the reduction are black.
It’s somewhat inaccurate to call powdered cocaine a “white man’s drug,” although it flowed at Studio 54, where all the hip people played. The point is that crack was the black man’s drug, because it was cheap and ubiquitous in poor neighborhoods. The gutters in Harlem were strewn with empty crack vials back then, and occasionally the blood of a usurper to a particularly profitable street corner.
But was it racist? Not to Fernando Ferrer. Not to Congressman Charles Rangel either.
In 1989 Ebony profiled Rangel as “The Front-Line General in the War on Drugs.” “We need outrage!” he told the magazine. “I don’t know what is behind the lackadaisical attitudes towards drugs, but I do know that the American people have made it abundantly clear: They are outraged by the indifference of the U.S. government to this problem.” Ebony reported that Rangel also was”outraged that there has even been debate on the possibility of legalizing drugs, which, he says, would be ‘moral and political suicide.'”
This isn’t a question of whether they were right back in 1989. Many of the certainties of the time have since been proven false, or at least far less true than was presumed. People lost their heads about crack, refusing to consider that its active ingredient was the same coke the hipsters were snorting at chic parties, except mixed with baby laxative and delivered by smoking rather than sniffing.
When I argued that the punishment being one hundred times harsher violated the Eighth Amendment, the judges laughed at me. Everybody knew crack was a demon drug that turned black men into animals with super-human power to destroy and no concern for anyone save their need for more crack. And when criminal defense lawyers argued, vociferously, that crack was merely the poor man’s coke, the black man’s coke, the elites of the Times responded that we cared nothing for the poor victims of the epidemic that was destroying black lives and neighborhoods.
Now, the law was racist. It’s almost as if the Times is surprised that 91% of the people who benefited from the First Step Act were black, even though they demanded these black men be imprisoned forever back then. Of course, when the Times screamed about the epidemic, and when Ferrer, Rangel and every politician regardless of skin color demanded the War be won, it wasn’t because they hated black men, but allowed themselves to be caught up in the hysteria of the moment. Of course, what we got wrong back then is now obviously hysteria. Our view today, in contrast, is obviously correct, and so now it’s racism that made us do it.
*For a bit of context, 1989 was the year the Central Park Five were arrested and Mistretta was decided by the Supreme Court, holding the mandatory application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines constitutional. It was not a great year for music, either.