Smoking crack

by Rob Horning

23 October 2007


Crack seems like it’s in serious need of rebranding. As sociologist Craig Reinarman points out in this Washington Post op-ed, crack is just a pejorative term for freebase cocaine, which could have been glamorous as the snortable version of the drug if only so many celebrities didn’t set themselves on fire trying it. In the 1980s crack became a byword for ghetto blight, and the crack “epidemic” was a convenient way of depicting miserable inner city conditions as somehow the fault of those drug fiends who lived there. Now, crack is so firmly associated with poverty that getting caught using or dealing it is punished more harshly: “At the peak of the panic over crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, Congress passed a rash of laws requiring longer prison sentences. One such law created a 100-to-1 disparity between crack and cocaine offenses. You have to get caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine—but only five grams of crack cocaine—to get a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.” So the same substance brings upon people different punishments depending on what the police decide to call it.

Smoking crack has faded from the news (though as Reinarman notes, the practice is as prevalent as ever), so you’d expect it would take on a kind of nostalgic kitsch value; that self-consciously cool people would spot an opportunity to freebase coke ironically and be all retro. Ordinarily, I would argue that this kind of hipster appropriation runs the danger of deauthenticating crack smoking for everyone, making it impossible to smoke crack sincerely like a true devotee and enjoy the high for its own sake. Freebasing should be its own reward, damn it, not a posture! But in this case, I suspect that for aficionados, nothing can tarnish the pristine allure of the crack pipe.

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