City Paper is not for tourists
In Monday’s WaPo, DeNeen L. Brown took a court hearing for Unifest crasher Tonya Bell as an opportunity to remind us of the lingering horrors of crack. Brown notes that the drug “has hung on, never really left.” She quotes Ron Strong, from the Justice Department’s National Drug Threat Assessment Unit, who says crack is still the primary drug concern in Washington. Instead of citing stats, she emotes: “Still, crack feels larger.”
The point of Brown’s impressionistic feature is hard to parse. Is she saying crack is resurging, just as bad as it ever was? It’s not really clear. Either way, she doesn’t turn to actual statistics to make her point. Recent national data doesn’t show much change in the levels of crack use in recent years. The percentage of Americans who’ve used the drug in the last month tends to hover around 0.2 or 0.3 percent. Percentages for lifetime use—-anyone who’s tried the drug even just once—-have stayed around 3.3 percent. According to crack expert Craig Reinarman, lifetime use hit about 4 percent at crack’s peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Reinarman, who I just reached on the phone, says Brown was right to note that crack hasn’t diminished nearly as much as our obsession with it—-but she still draws all the wrong conclusions.
For one, her story makes the assumption that Tonya Bell drove through the crowd, laughing as she mowed people down, because of crack. But she doesn’t offer any proof of that connection. It’s a typical conflation of the effects of crack use with its potentially deeper causes. Few reporters have made the obvious connection that the people who use crack are often prone to frightening and irrational behavior long before they get hooked on the drug. Bell may well have plowed through the crowd in her Volvo if she’d turned to alcohol instead.
Brown pulls back from the small cause-and-effect case of Bell on crack and the Unifest tragedy to the big picture of crack and crime in D.C. She reminds us of just how much crime crack caused, citing the 479 homicides in 1991, the height of the crack surge here. She doesn’t bother to note that last year the district saw far fewer homicides: 169. If crack’s still here, big and strong, then where are all the bodies? Reinarman says the dip in crime has more to do with the crack market settling down. Dealers know their turf and have stopped fighting over borders. Seems to me there are other reasons as well—-complicated ones about economics and gentrification.
Which leads me to the real cause-and-effect scenario. What reporters are afraid to say, and this is Reinarman’s pet peeve, is that poverty and marginalization cause people to turn to serious drug abuse and addiction. So while it’s tempting to blame the drug when people do desperate things, the truth usually has something to do with the fact that they were desperate in the first place.
Poverty, Reinarman says, is the underlying cause of most drug abuse in America. But that’s an uncomfortable little subject most of use would rather avoid.