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Miscellaneous Statements on Drug Policy

The Effects of Crack

by Professor Michael Gazzaniga

The following is an excerpt form "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do", by Peter McWilliams. It is a discussion between William F. Buckley, Jr. And Professor Gazzaniga (the Andrew W. Thompson Jr. Professor of Psychiatry [Neuroscience] at Dartmouth Medical School) which was originally published in the February 5, 1990, issue of the National Review.

Buckley: It is said that the drug crack is substantively different from its parent drug, cocaine, in that it is, to use the term of Professor van den Haag, "crimogenic." In other words a certain (unspecified) percentage of those who take crack are prompted to--well, to go out and commit mayhem of some kind. Is that correct?

Gazzaniga: No, not in the way you put it. What you are asking is: Is there something about how crack acts on the brain that makes people who take it likelier to commit crime? Let's begin by making it clear what crack is. It is simply cocaine that has been mixed with baking soda, water, and then boiled. What this procedure does is to permit cocaine to be smoked. Now any drug ingested in that way-- i.e., absorbed by the lungs--goes more efficiently to the brain, and the result is a quicker, more intense experience. That is what crack gives the consumer. But its impact on the brain is the same as with plain cocaine and, as a matter of fact, amphetamines. No one has ever maintained that these drugs are "crimogenic.' The only study I know about that inquires into the question of crack breeding crime reports that most homicides involving crack were the result NOT of the use of crack, but of dealer disputes. Crack did not induce users to commit crimes. Do some crack users commit crimes? Of course. After all, involvement in proscribed drug traffic is dangerous. Moreover, people who commit crimes tend to use drugs at a high rate, though which drug they prefer varies from one year to the next.

Buckley: You are telling us that an increase in the use of crack would not mean an increase in crime?

Gazzaniga: I am saying that what increase there would be in crime would not be simply the result of the pharmacology of that drug. Look, let's say there are 200,000 users/abusers of crack in New York City--a number that reflects one of the current estimates. If so, and if the drug produced violent tendencies in all crack users, the health-care system would have to come to a screeching halt. It hasn't. In fact, in 1988 the hospitals in New York City (the crack capital of the world) averaged only seven crack-related admissions, city-wide, a day. The perception of crack-based misbehavior is exaggerated because it is the cases that show up in the emergency rooms that receive public notice, and the whole picture begins to look very bleak. All of this is to say: when considering any aspect of the drug problem, keep in mind the matter of selection of evidence. It is prudent to recall that, in the past, dangerous and criminal behavior has been said to have been generated by other drugs, for instance marijuana (you remember "Reefer Madness"?). And bear it in mind that since cocaine is available everywhere, so is crack available everywhere, since the means of converting the one into the other are easy, and easily learned. It is important to note that only a small percentage of cocaine users actually convert their stuff to crack. Roughly one in six.

Buckley: Then would it follow that even if there were an increase in the use of crack, the legalization of it would actually result in a decrease in crime?

Gazzaniga: That is correct.

Buckley: Isn't crack a drug whose addictive power exceeds that of many other drugs? If that is the case, one assumes that people who opt to take crack do so because it yields the faster and more exhilarating satisfactions to which you make reference.

Gazzaniga: That is certainly the current understanding, but there are no solid data on the question. Current observations are confounded by certain economic variables. Crack is cheap-

Buckley: Why? If cocaine is expensive, how can crack be cheap?

Gazzaniga: Cocaine costs $1,000 per ounce if bought in quantity. Once ounce can produce one thousand vials of crack, each of which sells for $5. The drug abuser is able to experience more drug episodes. Crack being cheap, the next high can come a lot more quickly and since there is a down to every up, or high, the cycle can become intense. So yes, crack is addictive. So is cocaine. So are amphetamines. The special punch of crack, as the result of going quickly via the lungs to the brain, may prompt some abusers to want more. By the way, it is the public knowledge that crack acts in this way that, as several studies document, causes most regular cocaine users to be cautious about crack. The casual- to-moderate user very clearly wants to stay in that category. So, all you can say is that there is a *perception*, widely shared, that crack is more addictive. Whether it is, isn't really known. One thing we do know is that crack does not begin to approach tobacco as a nationwide health hazard. For every crack-related death, there are three-hundred tobacco-related deaths. Another example of hyperbole is the recent claim that there were 375,000 "crack babies" born last year; how could that possibly be, when the government (the National Institutes on Drug Abuse) informs us that there were only 500,000 crack "users" last year? Exaggeration and misinformation run rampant on this subject.

Buckley: Well, if crack were legally available alongside cocaine and, say, marijuana, what would be the reason for a consumer to take crack?

Gazzaniga: You need to keep your drug classifications straight. if your goal were, pure and simple, to get high, you might try crack or cocaine, or some amphetamine. You wouldn't go for marijuana, which is a mild hallucinogen and tranquilizer. So, if you wanted to be up and you didn't have much time, you might go to crack. But then if it were absolutely established that there was a higher addiction rate with crack, legalization could, paradoxically, diminish its use. This is so because if cocaine were reduced to the same price as crack, the abuser, acknowledging the higher rate of addiction, might forgo the more intensive high of crack, opting for the slower high of cocaine. Crack was introduced years ago as offering an alluring new psychoactive experience. But its special hold on the ghetto is the result of its price. Remember that--on another front--we know that 120- proof alcohol doesn't sell as readily as 86 proof, not by a long shot, even though the higher the proof, the faster the psychological effect that alcohol users are seeking.

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