The Under-Drugs–Crack and Heroin

Despite the differences in the chemical compositions of both “crack” and “heroin,” the two drugs were lumped roughly into the same category of users and dangers. They were advertised as unclean, not only health-wise, but morally too, and were associated with lower-classes, and often times, minorities.

In this paper, I will use the following to demonstrate the similar views on “crack” and “heroin”—David Courtwright and Herman Joseph’s novel Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America 1923-1965, Caroline Jean Acker’s article titled “How Crack Found A Niche in the Ghetto: The Historical Epidemiology of Drug-Related Harm,” David Herzberg’s “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” and Matthew Lassiter’s “Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs.”

Crack and heroin were both associated with a lower class of people. Crack was typically used in the cities, while cocaine was used more commonly in suburban areas and was more expensive, hence why it was associated with a higher class than crack was. The media often blasted crack as causing deformities in babies, classifying these babies as “Crack Babies.” However, no word of “Cocaine Babies” was uttered in the media, despite both cocaine and crack causing the same amount of harm to babies when they were developing in the wombs. Crack was associated with minorities, especially African Americans, and images of African American mothers with deformed babies would commonly be in the media to reinforce this association of a specific race with crack in the public’s mind. As seen in David Musto’s novel The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, there was also a rampant fear among whites of cocainized blacks, more so being African American men using crack, what one could call the poor man’s version of cocaine, and suddenly rampaging and assaulting the purity of white women, raping them, and getting retribution on white society. Keeping in mind this difference in class between crack and cocaine users, someone would have to have to five-hundred grams of powdered cocaine in order to get the same prison sentence as someone with just five grams of crack, as shown by Acker.

A juxtaposition of heroin and opium was made apparent in the readings, as well. Heroin was mainly found in minority neighborhoods within major port cities. Knowing that people looked down on those that used heroin instead of opium, Frieda, an eighty-one-year-old white woman addicted to narcotics, made a point of saying that she did not look down on those that used the needle—heroin—when she would smoke opium, the higher-class drug of sorts. In fact, she said she “never bothered with them” even, thinking that opium users were not like “the junkies in the street” using heroin (Courtwright and Joseph 82). In Herzberg’s “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” authorities saw users of heroin as “street-hustling urban junkies.” It appears that heroin was cheaper than opium, too, making sense as to why it was associated with a lower class of people. Drawing from Frieda’s story in Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America 1923-1965, opium became harder to afford compared to heroin in the 1930s. Just as cocaine was the “rich man’s drug” in the 1970s, opium, or as they refer to it in the reading— “hop” —was the “rich man’s drug” in the 1920s and a favorite of those “flush with cash” (Courtwright and Joseph 77). One can possibly see why heroin, since it was known to be easier to smuggle than opium, could be associated more with a lower form of criminal, dirtier, and more clandestine. According to Herzberg in “Entitled to Addiction? Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America’s First Drug War,” people would increasingly identify with being an outsider and even an outlaw when smuggling heroin, as opposed to opium. It is important to realize that opium was not always associated with higher class people, in fact it was a prime target in federal narcotic legislation and was seen as dirty and deplorable, associated with Chinese people, until tides had changed when heroin entered the picture in the American drug world. 

“Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War on Drugs” reveals how former President Ronald Reagan and former First Wife Nancy Reagan framed both crack and heroin as the drugs killing the children of America, along with marijuana. With opium and morphine having the same chemical impact, morphine extract could be used to create heroin, similar to cocaine being transformed into crack. 

Crack was associated with lower-classes, namely African Americans, and heroin was associated with lower-class people, as well, and minorities. One should keep in mind through this comparison of crack and heroin in these various pieces of literature that it appears whichever drug was used by minorities was the under-drug, to make a spin-off of the term under-dog. 

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