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  • From 1985 through the 1990s, an explosion of crack cocaine in cities across the United States kicked the war on drugs into overdrive, with tragic and far-reaching results.

    It’s impossible to talk about the crack cocaine epidemic without mentioning the war on drugs, a legal and public health approach that combated drug trafficking with force and zero-tolerance penalties, including mass incarceration.

    Fortunately, modern drug policy acknowledges addiction for what it really is. Not a moral weakness or criminal inclination, but a disease that can be treated and recovered from. 

    The Origin Of The War On Drugs

    The war on drugs began during the 1960s, introduced by Richard Nixon as a policy to combat drug use associated with the counterculture. Under Nixon, the DEA was massively expanded and harsh new policies, including mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants, were established.

    Who Invented Crack?

    It’s not clear who invented crack first, but the circumstances of its creation are well understood. 

    The crack epidemic of the 1980s began when a glut of powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride, extracted from coca leaves) reached the United States. 

    It was likely funneled from South America through Miami and other Caribbean ports of entry. Cocaine, at the time, was a popular party drug in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. 

    With the supply of the drug at an all-time high and both prices and profits dropping, innovative drug dealers combined cocaine with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to separate the free base cocaine into crystals that crackled and popped when smoked, giving crack it’s distinctive name.

    Crack use and crack addiction exploded in the years that followed. It was affordable, easy to make, highly concentrated, and habit-forming.

    Crackdown & Incarceration

    The profits from the new form of cocaine fueled an evolution in organized crime and gang warfare in the inner-city, and between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rates for young black males nearly doubled.

    Building on Nixon’s war on drugs, federal and state governments enacted zero-tolerance policies and penalties to deal with the situation, including five-year minimum sentences and the infamous 100:1 ratio. 

    The 100: 1 ratio directed that any amount of crack carried by an individual would be considered 100x larger than powder cocaine for the purposes of sentencing. 

    Armed with these new laws and policies, law enforcement activity, militarization, and arrests increased dramatically, especially in primarily non-white urban areas. In 1980, approximately 50,000 individuals were incarcerated in the United States on drug charges. 

    By 1996, following the height of the crack epidemic, that figure was 400,000, or about 60% of all United States prisoners.

    Racial Disparities

    According to data from National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), those who admitted to using crack in 1991 were 52% white, 38% black, and 10% Hispanic. Those who admitted to using other forms of cocaine were 75% white, 15% black, and 10% Hispanic.

    However, 79% of the 5,669 sentenced crack cocaine offenders in the same year were African American, 10% were Hispanic, and only 10% were white. 

    The End Of The Crack Epidemic

    The crack epidemic tapered off slowly in the 1990s. But it’s consequences have been far more lasting. 

    Hundreds of thousands of Americans gained prison records due to non-violent, otherwise minor substance abuse violations. 

    Each lost economic potential and left behind a damaged family unit and community, perpetuating the social conditions which were and are still so strongly associated with substance abuse. 

    A New Approach To Substance Use Disorder

    If the nation had focused on drug rehabilitation and economic improvement, rather than crackdowns and arrests, how many lives could have been saved? How different would our society look thirty years later?

    Fortunately, it appears that some of these lessons have been taken to heart. Today, America faces an epidemic of prescription opioids, heroin, and methamphetamine. 

    In response, states and federal agencies have taken a more compassionate approach that recognizes drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime, and which emphasizes harm reduction, rehabilitation, and job training rather than vilification or imprisonment.

    If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, please contact our team today to learn more about our drug addiction treatment programs.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Medically Reviewed by
    Lauren Weinand, M.D.
    on March 14, 2022
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