Help us understand the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s.
October 12, 2010 11:51 AM   Subscribe

My son is doing research on the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s and we're having trouble locating source material.

He is focusing on the following questions:

1: What historical factors and components ultimately led to the epidemic?

2: How did the epidemic affect the upper and middle classes in the city (this would mostly relate to rising crime making certain places dangerous, and breeding discrimination towards the poor)?

3: How did the epidemic affect the poorest classes in the city (in addition to the immediate effects of addiction, this would also relate to how it affected the culture of people living in housing projects).

4: How did racial inequality play a part in the epidemic?

5: Who stood up to fight the problem and how was it addressed?

6: Where do we stand today (the legacy of the epidemic, and where we stand with drug abuse and poverty)?

He would like to find both online and printed sources to use in his research but is having trouble coming up with much that is useful. Do any of you have suggestions of sources or have other ideas for materials to use in his research (or of particular techniques to find such material)?
posted by Obscure Reference to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This wikipedia article is a great start to answer some general questions. Scrolling down to the "references" section will give you some jumping off points for further research.
posted by ejazen at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2010

Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but you will definitely want to read Gary Webb's series of articles for the San Jose Mercury-News, "Dark Alliance," about the connections between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras, and the crack epidemic (now unavailable on their website, but presumably available in archive from the library, also preserved on-line here.

Sound like crazy conspiracy stuff? Maybe, but both the CIA and the Justice Department took it seriously enough to investigate / respond.
posted by dersins at 12:00 PM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

i found this metafilter post really interesting. it might add to your list the question of "how much of the fervor was wholly created by powerful people for their own gains?"
posted by nadawi at 12:02 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of sources that suggest that the "crack epidemic" reported by the media in the 80s and 90s was a myth. Drug use across the board declined from a peak in 1979, and most of the people using crack during those decades were already heavy users of other drugs. Salon magazine in the late 1990s and the New York Times more recently have done some great work debunking the myths about rampant crime and devastation connected with crack use.
posted by decathecting at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Is he in high school, college, what? I'm wondering because that will make a difference with the advice I offer.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2010

There was an economist reference in the book "Freakonomics" that should get you some good information but the source he is taking the information from should help even more.

Ah ha! Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. I think this would be your best bet.

The gist of it is that crack mostly went away because being a street level dealer (the guys who sell to the users) really sucked. It didn't pay as well as flipping burgers and they got shot at slightly more often. I've only read the chapter in Freakonomics and any of Venkatesh's more complete work. I have a hunch that you'll find a lot of really good information in the book that I linked and a bunch of the other stuff on his website.
posted by VTX at 12:08 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should look at the research of Sudhir Venkatesh. The third chapter in Freakonomics presents a nice summary of some of his research.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:09 PM on October 12, 2010

Look up Ricky 'Freeway' Ross, he is one of the first sources of info for many. He was among the first "big time" crack dealers of that era with indirect connections such as Ollie North, the CIA and the Reagan and Bush Administrations.
Also look up Gary Webb, a journalist who covered the story heavily in "The Dark Alliance" series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News. Webb ultimately lost his life to bullets in his head so he must have been on to something someone didn't like.
Garys articles brought to light a connection between one of Ross's cocaine sources, Danilo Blandon, and the CIA as part of the Iran-Contra scandal......
It's deep as hell.... check it out..

Start with Wiki than get the book 'Dark Alliance"
posted by Studiogeek at 12:29 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

(sorry for the redundancy, i'm a slow typist and all these popped up since I started typing)
posted by Studiogeek at 12:35 PM on October 12, 2010

Also---please don't forget your local library. If you son is enrolled in a school he will have access to a huge number of online databases not available to the general public. If he isn't in school, he still has access through the public library to a lot of great proprietary information not found on the open Web.
posted by stellaluna at 1:04 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Crack in America, by Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine, is an excellent, well researched book (with the caveat that I am associated with them through work.)

I also recommend Phillipe Bourgois' book In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:08 PM on October 12, 2010

There's a pretty good section on gangs, crack and the LAPD in Chapter 5 of Mike Davis's City of Quartz titled "The HAMMER and The Rock". The chapter details the suspension of civil liberties in Southcentral Los Angeles during the "War on Drugs" and gives a pretty interesting description of the forces at work that resulted in community leaders (including at least one former Black Panther) allying with the LAPD, even in the face of egregious racism and abuse of power.
posted by clockwork at 1:31 PM on October 12, 2010

I would think that newspapers would be an invaluable resource for this kind of coverage as it unfolded in the moment. Local libraries can help.
posted by Miko at 3:13 PM on October 12, 2010

I would go to my library and look in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature volumes for the time period in question.
posted by neuron at 3:22 PM on October 12, 2010

I also recommend Phillipe Bourgois' book In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:08 PM on October 12 [1 favorite +] [!]

You must, must, must read this book.
posted by johnnybeggs at 4:59 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Answer to a question above: He's a high school student.
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:29 PM on October 12, 2010

Wild Cow-boys: Urban Marauders & The Forces Of Order is a kind-of micro look at the crack epidemic in New York in the late 80s/early 90s that focuses on a single crack gang (the Wild Cowboys) and their eventual demise. A lot of uncreative crack gangs were identified by the color of the vial tops, and would often maintain alternate aliases that carried the same first letters. Yellow Top Crew, for example (Y.T.C.) was also called Young Talented Children (they operated in the Harlem area). The prototypical crack gangs are the Detroit-based Chambers Brothers and Y.B.I.

Small side note: I was actually working for the Homicide Investigation Unit when we did the take down of the WC. I was workmates with the author but had absolutely no hand in the book.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:34 PM on October 12, 2010

This sounds like an excellent question for the reference librarian at your local public library. Have you tried that yet?
posted by apricot at 5:37 PM on October 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in a Canadian Public Library and we tonnes of books answering these questions, I imagine an American library would have more. And yes, we have databases including contemporary newspapers from that time.
posted by saucysault at 6:24 PM on October 12, 2010

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