The Crack Epidemic in Washington Dc

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The Federal Government’s Impact on the Crack Epidemic in the District of Colombia

Cutler Fisher
AMST 3950W
April 15, 2012
The term epidemic is typically used in relation to the spread of a disease however; in the mid 1980’s this term was attached to crack cocaine. The crack cocaine epidemic described the impact of a newly created drug on most U.S. cities in the northeast and Mid Atlantic. Washington, D.C. provided the perfect setting for crack cocaine to flourish. Plenty of low-income inner city housing projects complete with open air drug markets labeled D.C. as a leading U.S. city with a major crack cocaine problem. As crack cocaine became a national talking point the federal government stepped in to curb its use. Congress along with other sections of the federal government pushed for a tough approach to crack cocaine. The crack cocaine “epidemic” in Washington, D.C. coincided with President’s Regan’s “War on Drugs”. The creation of a new cabinet position; “Drug Czar” coupled with extremely harsh penalties directed for use and distribution of crack cocaine characterized the War on Drugs. One of the most controversial new penalties was the disproportionate sentence for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. All wars have casualties and the unfair and harsh sentences for crack cocaine created by the federal government greatly impacted the D.C. area through a backlash of increased violence. Also, both Federal and local D.C. enforcement strategies such as undercover stings made Washington D.C. volatile. Violence and crack became synonymous. Crack cocaine was on the heels of the popularity of cocaine, an illegal powder-like substance, that as a stimulant is snorted to produce a euphoric feeling or high. Cocaine hails from the high mountainous regions of South America from the leaves of the coco plant. In the United States cocaine was initially used for medicinal purposes by Sigmund Freud in the 1880’s as a “cure” for depression. In 1886, an exciting new soft drink, Coca Cola, used cocaine as its main ingredient. In the early 1900’s cocaine cut across all stratums of society as an elixir. Soon, the dangers of cocaine and its addictive property became evident and cocaine was banned through The Dangerous Drug Act of 1920. Illegally, cocaine was widely used in the 1970’s with crack following in the 1980’s. Large urban areas throughout the U.S., particularly on the east coast, became the perfect areas to hurdle crack cocaine to epidemic proportions. Washington, D.C. was unable to avoid the impact of this inexpensive and highly available drug. Without delving very deep into the issue, it seems reasonable to associate the violence and other crimes of Washington D.C. during the late 80s and early 90s directly to the usage of crack cocaine. For example Ronald Fryer argues that, “the rise in crack from 1984-1989 is associated with a doubling of homicide victimizations of Black males aged 14-17, a 30 percent increase for Black males aged 18-24, and a 10 percent increase for Black males 25 and over, and thus accounts for much of the observed variation in homicide rates over this time period.” However, a closer analysis of crack cocaine’s association with increased violence in D. C. will point to the federal government’s policies towards crack as contributing to increased violence as measured by homicide rates, handgun arrests and emergency room visits during the period of the “epidemic”. The most controversial policy put forth by the federal government is the 1 to 100 ratio for the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine. This law was passed after a highly publicized college basketball player’s death at nearby University of Maryland motivated lawmakers to stiffen penalties. Len Bias died of a powder cocaine overdose, yet the public misunderstood the cause of his death and associated his death with crack cocaine not powder cocaine. Len Bias’ death seems to have been the last straw for Congress...
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