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Netflix’s “Crack” Reveals America’s War on Drugs Was Really a War on People

Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s latest documentary details the ways in which a health crisis became a pretext for mass incarceration.

There’s a new documentary on Netflix that everyone needs to watch.

No, this isn’t a saga of potential innocence or a four-part deep-dive into a cult. Instead, “Crack: Cocaine, Corruption, and Conspiracy” is a masterfully presented, 89-minute expose on the U.S. government’s role in today’s carceral state. Featuring interviews with former users, dealers, lawmakers, and tons of archival footage, veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson gives viewers an education on how crack officially became whack.

Approaching the timeline chronologically, Nelson highlights several moments in the cultural zeitgeist that played an outsized role in making crack the subject of countless nightly news broadcasts to come. In 1980, comedian Richard Pryor accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing. As “Crack” reveals, news coverage of that incident actually played an outsized role in making the public aware of freebasing as a way to consume cocaine.

Then came “Scarface” and Al Pacino, which established a demented link in the minds of many between absolute power and all the cocaine. By the mid-80s, cocaine was seen as a status symbol, but that caused more and more of the drug to flood the market, which in turn brought about crack.

[Brief aside: there is not space here to aptly summarize the ways in which the Reagan-led Iran-Contras scandal assured a steady supply of cocaine into the U.S. during this period, but it happened, “Crack” covers it well, and it’s tough to digest.]

First things first: how does cocaine become crack? In essence, the powder form of Cocaine hydrochloride is “cooked” to rid it of its salt, which is what prevents the substance from being smoked. Now “free” of the salt, one can smoke the “base” cocaine. Biologically, ingesting the drug in this form results in a much faster, more intense high. Given the process of cooking cocaine is not ideally done in public view, pre-cooked crack “rocks” became the drug du-jour for those unable to afford its more expensive, powdered cousin.

Using cocaine in this form can also quickly lead to devastating addictions.

But here’s the thing: two-thirds of crack users were white. And yet, as historian and Rutgers University professor Donna Murch details in the film, “between the passage of the [1986] Anti-Drug Abuse Act and, in 1994, the passage of Clinton’s crime bill, not a single white person was convicted of a federal crack offense in Los Angeles.”

Zoom out from Los Angeles to the entire country and the story is the same. According to “Crack,” in 1985, there were 16,600 black prisoners convicted for drug offenses. In 1995, the number was 134,000. That’s an increase of 707%. How does this happen?

As Eric E. Sterling, former counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, explains in the film, media coverage played a damning role as well.

“If I want to show the drug problem,” he offers by way of example, “send the camera crew to down to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, and we’ll show some young Black men sitting on a stoop or standing in front of a store. There’s the crack problem! There they are!”

Another chilling component of this viscously misguided coverage concerns the warnings over “crack babies” – children born to women suffering from an addiction to crack cocaine.

At one point in “Crack,” Nelson cuts to footage of Dan Rather gravely reporting that “one hundred thousand crack babies are being born each year, and it now appears they may be damaged for life.” Historian Elizabeth Hinton then explains that, in reality, only two to three percent of children born during this period were discovered to have any cocaine in their system.

However, instead of treating these women as suffering from the health issue of addiction, they were criminalized. The film relays the story of Jennifer Johnson: a former user who became the first woman ever prosecuted for “dealing drugs” to her newborn in the sixty seconds between the time she gave birth and the moment her umbilical cord was cut.

Johnson, a featured subject in the documentary, explains that she had confided in her personal care physician that she was using crack as part of a pre-natal check-up. Johnson’s doctor then turned this privileged information over to the police, who essentially waited for her to give birth to charge her with this crime.

We agreed that some of our people were worthy of being thrown away, and that happened on our watch.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, tells of a nurse named Shirley Brown at the University of South Carolina. Brown, a white woman, would openly interrogate her pregnant Black patients to see if they were crack users. In addition, she’d also secretly search their belongings and test them.

If she got the results she was expecting, she rang the authorities.

“Brown helped the police,” Paltrow noted, “who would come to these women’s’ bedsides and take them out of their beds — either while they were still pregnant or shortly after they had delivered but while they were still bleeding from having delivered their babies.”

What emerges in Stanley Nelson’s film is a picture of a system that failed inner-city Black communities at every turn. The news was against them. Their doctors were against them. Well, what about the law?

“[The Anti-Drug Abuse Act] was the most unjust federal law ever written,” opines Eric Sterling.

Specifically, a provision in the law making the sentence for possession of 1 gram of crack equal to possession of 100 grams of cocaine, is simply impossible to justify.

Perhaps the most haunting words of the entire documentary are those offered by author and journalist Asha Bandele. In explaining how willing society was to lock away the problem of crack, she hits on what truly made the drug so dangerous.

“As soon as you say that someone uses crack,” she said, “you don’t have to talk about anything else. You don’t have to talk about the jobs that have been lost. You don’t have to talk about whether someone’s been sexually assaulted and they’re now self-medicating. You don’t have to talk about anything. You can just throw it away. We agreed that some of our people were worthy of being thrown away, and that happened on our watch.”

When contrasted with the current opioid health crisis ravaging the U.S., it’s stunning to see the sympathy now extended where previously there was disdain.

While most documentaries seek to offer something akin to resolution, “Crack” is forced to acknowledge the unconscionable reality that nothing was ever really done to fix what amounted to a generation’s worth of carnage wrought on communities of color in the name of drugs.

“If you’ve got a war on drugs,” journalist John Mattes summarizes near the film’s end, “is it not a war on the people who are supplying the drugs? Or is it only a war on the victims of the drug war? That was the hypocrisy. And sadly, we never addressed it. People died. Communities are ravaged. Nothing was ever done. We left these communities of color to be devastated.”

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