Who You Callin’ Cheap?

If you think crack is inexpensive, you’ve gotta be smoking something.

If you ever want to hear crackheads—a subset of the population not known for its spontaneous hilarity—laugh, just pull out a newspaper clipping and read out the stock tag line almost invariably attached to their drug of choice: “a cheap, smokable form of cocaine.”

Smokable it is; that’s what crack is all about. But the notion that crack is a “cheap” rendition of the high-class toot your Dad might have been sniffing in the ’70s is perhaps the most ludicrous of the innumerable legends surrounding the Demon Drug.

Whatever criterion you set—satisfaction gained, legal consequences, or even dollars spent per minute stoned—crack is probably the most expensive way to get high an American drug addict might hope to find. I know dope fiends who managed to stumble along for years feeding a heroin habit—which, trust me, is no pharmacological bargain. Six months after hitting the crack stem, these same users were on their knees, completely tapped out financially and emotionally. I have heard 12-stepping addicts thank the God of their understanding for crack, because it brought them to their “bottom” so quickly and so efficiently.

In this sense, at least, crack is just what the media clichés paint it to be—the ultimate ghetto drug. It’s much like those dusty little corner groceries that dot the low-rent wards. Those Lucite-girded roach traps should be cheap; after all, it’s strictly poor folks shopping there. In fact, you pay much more at the ghetto grocery, and for crummier goods, than you would at a Safeway, say, in Ward 3. “Convenience stores” are convenient not because they’re cheap, but because they’re right next door, whereas that big supermarket with the daily specials is a bus ride away. A captive consumer, you pay the toll for the convenience. The same goes for crack.

You remember freebasing? That was how millionaire boneheads like David Crosby and Richard Pryor got off in the ’70s. It was popular, dangerous, and kind of like crack.

With one major exception: Converting cocaine hydrochloride into a smokable base with ether and other volatile chemicals was an awfully expensive—and flammable—way to go. Especially because it made sense to go through all that rigamarole only when you had a gram or more of powdered coke to play with. With cocaine running at more than $100 a gram in those days, you had to be sitting on a big pile of bucks or have rock-star friends to even think about embarking on a freebase mission.

Enter economies of scale and some good capitalist marketing savvy. In the early ’80s, the cocaine in America grew ever more abundant, cheap, and potent. To move more product, the trick was to find a novel way to sell it—and a reliable way to keep the market coming back. Amidst the glut, the rock was born: A Richard Pryor rush right in the comfort of your own home.

As near as anyone can figure out, the trick of producing smokable base by the simple expedient of mixing powder cocaine with water and baking soda and applying heat—making what became known as “crack” because of the crackling sound a rock makes when smoked—first surfaced in the Bahamas. In 1983, that notorious Caribbean transit point was awash in powder cocaine, and some nameless but enterprising soul figured out an easy way to burn through the stuff as fast as possible.

Fast, but not cheap. By 1984, the Drug Enforcement Agency logged its first crack busts in New York City. A couple of years later, the District was in the throes of a supposed epidemic of crack—a McDonald’s-style form of cocaine, the journalists would have had us believe. (Of course, if crack was fast food, regular cocaine in those days wasn’t exactly a fine French meal.)

Yeah, you could find itty-bitty lumps of crack sold in plastic vials or tiny bags for as little as $5 or even $3 each. That chip of rock would give you a rush that hit immediately—but lasted only a few minutes. The come-on from snorting a line of cocaine might take a few minutes, but the high might linger as long as an hour.

That’s when crack put D.C. ahead of the curve. Back in the early ’90s, when I fell back into the bad habit of using hard drugs, my greatest frustration—and I had many—was the overabundance of crack. Maybe because I had started using narcotics in the early ’70s, I was wedded to the needle. And I liked nothing better than occasionally shooting a little cocaine with my heroin.

Unfortunately for me, it was almost as if an edict had been issued by the mayor’s office—indeed, as it turned out, there might have been—that all powder cocaine crossing the District line had to be immediately rocked up into crack. If I was copping the makings for a cocaine-and-heroin “speedball” in D.C., likely as not, I would have to buy some of that damned crack stuff and then melt it down with lemon juice or vinegar, which often made for a painful shot.

Having studied neoclassical economics in college, I quickly came to understand why rock was driving powder out of the market. Unregulated as it is, drug dealing is the purest expression of the capitalist marketplace anyone could imagine. Crack trumps flake not because it’s cheaper for the consumer, but because it’s more profitable for the dealer. Even starting out with a $3 rock, the user on a crack mission is spending about a dollar a minute to stay high. A run lasting any length of time—and crackheads can go for days—takes a lot of $3 rocks.

The cost of entry may be relatively low, in other words, but the price of staying in the game soars incredibly high. Compound the economic pitfalls with the irritating psychopharmacology of cocaine—only the first hit of a run is worth a damn; the rest of the time you’re just squandering your hard-earned money in a vain bid to recapture that elusive initial rush—and crack emerges not as a bargain, but as the ultimate sucker’s high.

And I say that with all of the confidence of a recovering heroin addict who knows precisely what a chump’s game is. CP