In New York City, the sleazy dealers peddling dope in Manhattan's Washington Heights call it "crack." In the south central part of Los Angeles, the desperate addicts chasing an ever more elusive high know it as "rock." On both coasts, and in Chicago, Detroit and other cities throughout the U.S., the drug by either name is an inexpensive yet highly potent, highly addictive form of cocaine that is rapidly becoming a scourge. Pushers sell pellet-size "rocks" in tiny plastic vials for as little as $10. Smoked rather than snorted, a single hit of crack provides an intense, wrenching rush in a matter of seconds. "It goes straight to the head. It's immediate speed," says a former addict. "It feels like the top of your head is going to blow off."
In minutes the flash high is followed by a crashing low that can leave a user craving another hit. But that evanescent electric jolt, priced so that almost anyone can afford it, has made crack the drug of the moment. The National Cocaine Hotline (1-800-COCAINE) estimates that 1 million Americans in 25 states around the country have tried crack. From January through April, while New York City police seizures of marijuana fell off 92% from the year before and heroin seizures fell off 88%, cocaine seizures rose 41%. Crack busts already constitute 55% of all cocaine arrests in New York. In Los Angeles, where the drug was introduced around 1981, more than two-thirds of the 2,500 coke arrests made this year have involved rock.
The rapid spread of crack leads some experts to fear a new wave of cocaine addiction in the U.S., possibly as serious as the devastation wrought by the heroin wave of the late 1960s. Says Dr. Arnold Washton, director of research for the National Cocaine Hotline: "Last May I had never heard of crack. Today we get nearly 700 to 900 calls a day from people having problems with the drug." Crack is more addictive than any other form of cocaine, says Washton. "It's the dealer's dream and the user's nightmare."
The drug is most popular in the inner city; a recent survey by the cocaine hotline indicates that most abusers are men between the ages of 20 and 35, and that more than half the nation's so-called crackheads are black. In some instances, say experts, heroin addicts have turned to the seemingly safer method of smoking cocaine because of the spread of AIDS among needle-using junkies; some of the seedy, smoke-filled "base houses" where crack is sold and consumed were formerly shooting galleries for heroin. But crack's low cost has also made it particularly appealing to adolescents. Kids as young as twelve have called the coke hotline in desperation.
Cocaine addiction is nothing new in the U.S. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some 5 million Americans are regular coke users. But the traditional, sniffed "nose candy" is no match for crack. NIDA estimates that an addiction to regular coke develops after three to four years, while crack abusers are usually hooked after only six to ten weeks. A snort of classic coke penetrates the mucous membranes slowly, circulating to the brain in about eight minutes and producing a high, much milder than crack's, that lasts for 20 minutes or so. Crack is absorbed rapidly through the lungs and hits the brain within seconds in a dangerous, concentrated form.