I was taught how to cook and smoke crack when I was 21. It was in a high-rise hotel room on East 34th Street in Manhattan, and some friends from New Jersey—in town for the New Year’s Eve Phish shows at Madison Square Garden—showed me the technique to convert powder cocaine into its smokable counterpart.
These upper-middle-class suburban kids seemed to know every detail about the drug, from the minutiae of proper pipe handling (taking a hit requires some optimization) to the kinder, gentler euphemism for crack, “hubbas.” They knew how to cook HCL (powder) cocaine into a base (freebase) as well as where to find the street version of the same drug (crack). Earlier that night, before I’d learned to make freebase, we had driven to someone’s house in Paterson, N.J., and one of my friends went inside and bought a bag of ready-made, smokable rocks. I sat shotgun on the way into the city while the backseat passenger took the wheel, allowing the driver to use both hands to take a hit off the pipe.
My levels of experimentation have varied since that night, from three months of daily usage in 1999 after that initial introduction to a year or two of abstinence. I eventually settled into a seasonal habit (I smoked crack only during the winter months), followed by a less moderate phase in 2013.
I don’t present these stories for shock value. On the contrary, I proceed with a lot of anxiety, knowing the potential to upset and alienate family members, friends, present or past business associates, future landlords, and whoever else is likely to take a dim view of the information I’m volunteering.
So why would I choose to share, both in this story and in my new podcast Dope Stories? Because I believe it’s necessary to forge a truthful, direct discussion about drugs before we can comprehend addiction, much less effectively treat drug abuse or hope to implement rational drug policy. My visceral fear when presenting these revelations shows that we are not close to achieving that level of dialogue.
The incisive documentary The House I Live In and Carl Hart’s book High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know about Drugs and Society both show that this country’s “war on drugs” could more accurately be described as a systematic effort to marginalize immigrants, minorities, and poor people, decade after decade. I am certainly aware, then, that my ability to experiment with a highly toxic drug has been enabled by the fact that I won the socio-economic lottery at birth, growing up upper-middle-class and Jewish, living on the Upper West Side with smart, caring parents.
That being said, there isn’t anything ennobling about going on a crack binge (or, for that matter, waking up with a hangover from one drug that is inarguably more toxic than cocaine—alcohol). But more people need to understand that addiction can be a middle ground, a place between having zero substance abuse issues and “needing to hit rock bottom before you can get better.”
I’m not particularly interested in “bottoming out” or destroying my life in exchange for whatever temporary benefit I get from smoking cocaine. On the other hand, the path I’ve taken over the last 15 years indicates that I’m not motivated to achieve total abstinence. That’s why I have tried to find a middle way, hopefully reducing the amount of harm I inflict upon myself. That is another reason why I’m sharing my story here, and why I don’t hide my drug use from those who are close to me. I need my friends and loved ones to help keep me in check.
It’s not hard to imagine a starker alternative, one in which I was ostracized based on the decades-old perception of the crack user as an out-of-control, devious individual. If family members and friends had forced me to choose between total sobriety and being out on the streets, I can imagine myself traveling down darker and more self-destructive roads.
In my experience and observation, putting a user in rehab is often a way of avoiding, not treating, drug addiction. I understand that there is enormous value in recovery programs, abstinence, and maintaining sobriety. But I also believe the implied choice between abstinence and rock bottom presents users with two options that are equally unsustainable and unreasonable.
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To be clear, my crack habit (call it a “crack problem” if you want) has not always been a hunky-dory, easily manageable part of my drug experimentation. I know exactly why and how “crack is wack,” and those details could fill up a column of greater length. I’ve felt the potential for physical and mental devastation.
But as much as I don’t intend to glorify crack use, I also don’t need to spend time condemning it or comparing it with other commonly used substances that aren’t viewed in the same negative light.
I’d rather go back to the early part of 1999, when my friend and I shared a habit that eventually took us on divergent paths. We held down day jobs so we could afford our nightly fix. (I worked as a bike messenger.) We would spend the evenings waiting for our cocaine to be delivered, then we’d cook it and watch MTV. That’s when the network still played videos like 2pac’s “Changes” (where he raps, “both black and white smoking crack tonight”) and Eminem’s “My Name Is,” the lead single of an album that might as well be dedicated to the highs and lows of hard drug use.