Ethnodrama and Reality

A response to "The House That Crack Built."

This is a fascinating portrayal of an institution that has gained considerable notoriety among Americans who have never been near such a place or substance. The vivid imagery and vibrant, if shocking, language will probably crystallize for readers the image of the crack house more than detached journalistic accounts have. This piece is neither journalism, fiction, nor ethnography. Its closest equivalent may be the television docudrama. Perhaps we could call it an ethnodrama.


I write as a professional ethnographer who conducted direct studies of drug dealers and users in New York City in the early and mid-1980's, up through the beginning of the crack epidemic. Since then, I have continued to study other aspects of inner-city life, all of them profoundly influenced by crack, and I have worked with other ethnographers who have studied crack users and dealers. The following discussion draws on my own work and that of my colleagues, particularly Richard Curtis and Ainsley Hamid in Brooklyn.

Much of the ethnodrama rings true in this wider context, primarily the sound of the composite speaker's voice with its mixture of intent to shock, bemusement, regret, and moral resolve to reform personally and warn others of the danger. At the same time, there are a number of inaccuracies; a more serious problem is that the image projected by the ethnodrama is tied to a particular kind of speaker and place, with no acknowledgement of this fact.

The inaccuracies concern the pharmacology and history of smokable cocaine. Contrary to what we are told, cocaine does dissolve in cold water with no other additives. Freebase is not stronger than crack. The whole point of crack is that it is highly concentrated cocaine. The amount of adulterants added to powdered cocaine has no effect on the potency of the "rock" that results from processing that powder into freebase or crack. Making the "rock" removes the adulterants, whether it is done with baking soda, ether, or another processing agent. Freebase is simply a process in which preparation and consumption occur in immediate sequence. Crack is pre-packaged freebase.

The myth that freebase is more expensive and stronger than crack is prevalent among crack users who have heard about earlier days and the exploits of celebrities like Richard Pryor. Freebase was more expensive then because cocaine was more expensive. The crack epidemic resulted from the worldwide collapse of cocaine prices in the mid-1980s and the discovery by cocaine dealers that they could now offer a celebrity form of substance abuse to a mass market. Some people do still freebase, and they tend to be more upscale than the consumers of $10 rocks of crack, but this has nothing to do with the relative expense or potency of the different processes of ingestion.

While I have no independent knowledge of how lucrative the crack business is in Springfield, I suspect that the information on profits is highly exaggerated. Systematic studies in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. indicate that lower level dealers and support staff make closer to $100 a day than $100 an hour. The few "players" who make thousands of dollars a day perch at the top of steep, unstable pyramids. I have interviewed many people involved in crime and know from experience that they routinely cite highest rather than typical profits to interviewers. It takes sustained work over time and outside evidence of a person's income to get accurate information of this kind. This aspect of the ethnodrama probably should be viewed as "tall tails from jail."

A larger concern is that the graphic nature of this piece projects an image of the crack house as a horrific and unchanging institution, soon to take up residence in your community if it has not done so already. The damage caused by crack is real, but this damage must be seen in the context of the continuing evolution of drug epidemics and public policy.

The scene in Springfield appears to resemble that in other places several years ago. In Brooklyn, for example, crack houses as places of both distribution and consumption began to disappear as long ago as 1986, for understandable reasons. The behavior of crack users is extremely volatile, and this leads to a related volatility of distribution patterns and of the epidemic itself. Dealers quickly realized that they did not want to be responsible for the premises on which their product was consumed. Users now buy from a "spot" where they are not allowed to consume. If they consume in a specialized locale, that is a separate and less frenetic place, a "smokehouse" often open only to people known to the regular occupant. Existing research already documents a wide variety of patterns of consumption and distribution.

One of the most important discoveries in Brooklyn is that crack users are getting older on average because younger initiates are dwindling. The horrific consequences of crack use have become visible to many younger people. Further, New York City now contains many overflowing Narcotics Anonymous chapters full of people who have stopped using crack. Perhaps this reflects again a lag between New York and Springfield, where we hear that users just cannot stop. None of this implies any cause for easy optimism. The same attenuation of young initiates happened with heroin a generation ago in New York City, where a steady heroin subculture persists to the present. Nearly half the heroin users in the country are still found in New York, where that epidemic hit and stuck. Still, it is important to realize that inner-city residents and communities can and do respond to drug problems in a variety of ways, with or usually without, adequate support from government.

In fact, the ethnodrama itself strongly suggests in some places countertrends among crack users, even though in other places it asserts that there is no way to stop. The composite speaker obviously wants to shock his audience, but he also wants to warn them against making his mistakes and to shore up his own resolve to survive and move forward. He is not a coldly calculating, hardened criminal, the kind of person referred to on the street as a "New Jack." On the contrary, he is a man with a conscience who appears to regret what he has done to himself and also the degradation of women and children in which he seems to share some complicity.

His conscience is evident in the way his tales alternate between horror and humor. Yes, there is considerable, intentional humor in this deeply troubling piece. Henri Bergson maintained that the prototype of all comedy is a person walking blithely forward and slipping on a banana peel: reflexive behavior tripped up by a world of contingency that cannot be negotiated reflexively. Crack produces an extreme form of reflexive, compulsive behavior that trips up individuals and entire communities in the most abrupt fashion. This speaker understands this about himself and others like him, yet he still does not know if he can find a way out of this paradoxical situation of self-awareness and ongoing compulsion.

Nor is he unique in his awareness that he has a problem and needs help. I keep a list of local drug programs in my office because I get periodic calls from people I have studied asking for help. The programs are so oversubscribed that the waiting period is usually about six weeks. By that time, it is too late. The urge to reform has been forgotten and an opportunity lost. Lots of crack users want help in between their binges. Treatment on demand could make a difference.

Indeed, the strong weight of opinion among drug experts, including many police officials, is that more resources are desperately needed for prevention and treatment. Yet national priorities have consistently favored law enforcement and incarceration. The drug policy priorities of the Clinton administration remain unclear at this stage. On the one hand, the first budget dealing specifically with drugs largely continues the past emphasis on enforcement. Little has been said about expanding resources for prevention. On the other hand, the possibility that drug treatment might be included in universal health care coverage offers the possibility of a shift toward providing treatment on demand.

More voices like the composite speaker's need to be heard, but they also need to be presented with more attention to the limits of data and the way each new piece of knowledge fits together with what is already known. National drug policy has been based on hysterical reactions to worst-case scenarios since the 1930s when Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and other moral entrepreneurs, such as the makers of the film "Reefer Madness," influenced policy through scare tactics. This ethnodrama is not a deliberately contrived distortion like "Reefer Madness," but its sensationalism risks concealing its more important messages.


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