Bright White Lines

Cocaine's cultural politics

by by Matt Sledge

The question of soul singer Amy Winehouse's life expectancy detains us. Her husband estimates "three months," but the videographic evidence suggests three minutes.

British tabloid The Sun put the tape—the one where Amy goes on a drug binge—on its website. If she can be saved, as her father Mitch suggests, it will be because she says—along with 62 headlines on Google News—yes, yes, yes to rehab. The question of Amy Winehouse's reputation confounds us. She is a celebrity, and what the shocking tabloid revelations take away, the miracle curative powers of the rehabilitation clinic usually restore. But Amy didn't smoke just anything on the tape. She lit a crack pipe.

That's exactly why Barack Obama's admission that he once inhaled "a little blow" in his youth won't hurt his campaign, and that's why our current president's unadmitted cocaine use never hurt him, either. Winehouse forgot the inviolable precept of celebrity cocaine consumption: snort, don't smoke. As Whitney Houston put it during her infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, "Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack."

Tupac's tired of being poor and even worse he's black
Houston's denial was motivated by the class and, more important, racial politics of cocaine use. To put it another way, crack is wack because it's (perceived to be) black. Crack is cocaine that's been cut down to an impure, smokable form. In the second half of the 1980s, American cities were hit by a so-called epidemic of crack use. Because of its cheapness and widespread availability, it was the new drug of choice for the urban underclass. News accounts portrayed it as an almost exclusively black drug, as opposed to its upscale chemical cousin, snortable cocaine. Crack was supposedly spreading from the ghetto to threaten suburban enclaves. In the wave of hysteria after University of Maryland basketball star prospect Len Bias's crack-related death in 1986, Congress dramatically increased penalties for crack possession. Five grams were enough to get somebody a mandatory five years in prison—as opposed to the requisite 500 grams of cocaine.

The racist and classist perceptions of crack have never really left the popular imagination, and in certain circles cocaine still makes a fashion statement. Witness two relatively recent exercises in 1980s nostalgia: high rollers and Wall Street moneymakers snort coke in American Psycho, and it's the poor blacks a hundred blocks up in Harlem who smoke rocks in Paid in Full. At Brown, it's wannabe decadents who do cocaine—nobody smokes crack.

Consider the strange career of the crack joke during the 1990s. In middle school cafeterias, in otherwise sensitive houses, in well-appointed boardrooms, it was hard to go more than a few days without hearing this line tossed off carelessly and lightheartedly in response to a particularly embarrassing flub: "have you been smoking crack?" The crackhead was the ultimate criminal boogeyman, at once both haplessly and horrifyingly desperate. By the 2000s, the memory of the crack epidemic had waned a bit and Dave Chappelle could play Tyrone the crackhead for laughs. Tyrone's motto: "I smoke rocks!"

The penitentiary's packed
As Winehouse's on-screen bender vividly demonstrated, there is nothing inherently black about crack. There is nothing pharmacologically distinctive about it, either—it just delivers cocaine's high faster. According to a 1986 study, three of four people who tried crack never tried it again. Most of the purported 'crack babies' never existed; they were products of the same imagination that gave us the phantasmal 'welfare queens.' Mothers endanger their fetuses far more by drinking alcohol than by smoking crack, though neither is wise. But the cruel racial politics and the undeniable urban decline during the Reagan years made the drug an easy demon for rabble-rousing politicians and frenzy-fanning journalists alike. Sociologist Craig Reinarman pointed out in an October Washington Post editorial that "[p]erversely, small-time sellers serve up to five times longer in prison than the cocaine-powder dealers caught with the same weight, who may well have supplied them." Stiff penalties for cocaine possession were introduced at the same time that funding for drug diversion and rehabilitation clinics was drastically cut.

Chappelle quit his show over guilt about characters like Tyrone, whose comic effect emanated from the contrast between his black skin and his lips chapped white with crack. The injustice of his mostly white fans impersonating Tyrone Biggums (catchphrase: SHAZZAM!) finally got to Chappelle, who later told Oprah Winfrey that he thought some of his sketches were "socially irresponsible."

In 1995, Congress rejected the United States Sentencing Commission's recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powdered cocaine. By 2006, 20 years had passed since the passage of the original law. In December 2007, the Sentencing Commission used its power to set sentencing guidelines to retroactively lessen penalties for nearly 23,000 prisoners convicted of crack-related crimes, many of whom will soon use the ruling to challenge their long incarcerations. Despite that change—made against the wishes of the Bush Justice Department—and a ruling by the Supreme Court that gives judges greater discretion to ignore the crack-powder disparity, penalties for crack are still much higher than for powdered cocaine. Only Congress could change the statutes that give the imbalance most of its bite, and only a radical reimagining of the drug war could change Congress's mind.

Many African-American politicians have made ameliorating the effects of the War on Drugs—which has more often been tantamount to a War on Blacks—a priority for years, as the consistent efforts to change the crack-powder inconsistency has shown. But their efforts have been stymied by indifferent or hostile presidents and a Senate whose electoral structure provides little incentive for its members to adequately represent African-Americans. As Tupac put it in "Changes," "both black and white are smoking crack tonight," but "we ain't ready to see a black president." Enter Barack Obama.

Will some things ever change?
When Obama wrote his memoir Dreams from My Father in 1995, he was far from the national political scene—a decade away from even a spot in the Illinois State Senate. He could afford to be remarkably candid about his past drug use, writing that in the dissolute days of his Hawaiian youth in the late 1970s, "[p]ot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it."

The key word is "blow," which seems to mean that he only snorted cocaine (and, the same sentence implies, maybe only when he got his allowance). Obama escapes crack's racial stigma; he becomes a youthful experimenter safely familiar to white America. What's more, Obama's book is literally a redemption tale: he escapes the perils of drug abuse and becomes a faithful Christian.

These days Obama can even afford to joke—at the Clinton family's expense—about his past pot use. He told a group of magazine editors, "When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point."

Obama's candor about his youthful drug use is matched by his readiness to end the aggressive tactics of the drug war. His memoir may put him on the same side of the great crack-powder cultural divide as the suburban Wisconsinites from That 70's Show, but he has told reporters that his favorite series is The Wire. On that show's third season, a police major turned the Western District of Baltimore into an American Amsterdam. Obama hasn't gone quite so far, but his website does state, under the heading "Civil Rights," his belief that the crack-powder disparity is "wrong and should be completely eliminated." Equalizing the sentences for crack and powder cocaine would go one step further than the Sentencing Commission, which has only lessened the distance between the two.

Obama and Hillary Clinton both support greater use of drug diversion programs, which would send more addicts to rehabilitation instead of prison--an option that has been the province of the wealthy and white, like Winehouse. John McCain, whose wife entered rehab after stealing prescription painkillers from a medical charity in the 1990s, has been silent on diversion but has called for increased penalties for dealers and tighter restrictions on methadone clinics.

Far from American shores—denied a visa by our embassy, in fact—Amy Winehouse probably won't walk up the aisle to find God with Senator Obama any time soon. Her performance via satellite at Sunday's Grammy Awards, however, may have changed a few minds about addiction. Soulful, defiant, self-effacing, she sang "You Know I'm No Good" and then "Rehab" with equal parts vulnerability and wit, looking nothing like the inhuman 'crackheads' we've been taught to fear. Then she accepted her award for the record of the year, hugged her mom and thanked the people of London. Her continued sobriety is a thin reed on which to hang any sort of hope for the future, but for one night, at least, the rehab was working.

If you rush MATT SLEDGE B'08 will bust this.