What Duke students know or think they know about crack cocaine is probably false.
Crack—cocaine cooked with baking soda and water and often smoked—may not be the most popular drug on campus, but its widespread use in the South encouraged health experts, social workers and members of the community to attend Duke’s first Crack Summit Wednesday, hosted by the Duke University School of Nursing and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.
People with firsthand experience with the drug—including leading researchers, a former Chicago police officer and a recovering addict—discussed the stigma attached to crack users and how to address widespread usage. Debunking commonly accepted knowledge about the highly addictive substance, the summit highlighted the importance of increased research and open-mindedness toward addicts.
The common conception that crack cocaine is a cheap drug used primarily by young, black males is false, said keynote speaker Samuel MacMaster, associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work.
“We are creating a separation that doesn’t really exist,” he said. “And that separation allows us to judge people, to create stigma and to say, ‘It’s not us, it’s you’.... And in America 2012, how you’re treated depends on the color of your skin.”
For every one black adolescent who uses crack, there are eight white users, he said. MacMaster blames Fox News and [the TV show] Cops for painting crack users as predominantly poor, black men.
Removing the stigma
In a study in which rats were allowed to consume as many doses of either crack or heroin as they wanted, the rats who took heroin only took doses once every few hours while those who chose crack binged on many doses over a short period of time until they passed out from exhaustion, dehydration or heart failure. The experiment demonstrated how chemical reactions perpetuate drug abuse more so than external influences.
“The [crack-using] rat did not grow up in a bad rat neighborhood,” he said. “The rat’s father did not leave and go to prison. And the rat’s mother was not 14 when he was born.... It’s a chemical reaction, but when people do it, we say, ‘It’s their personality, where they’re from, etc.’”
Crack yields a particularly pleasant high, making recovery from abuse extremely challenging, he said. Extreme amounts of dopamine are released upon consumption.
“It works the same part of the brain as an orgasm,” he added. “If you’ve had an orgasm, that would be like a one [out of 10] whereas crack would be like a 10 or 12.”
Jen Earls, a former Chicago policewoman of eight years, currently serves as an emergency room nurse at Duke Medicine. After both going undercover in crack houses on the west side of Chicago and treating addicted patients, Earls said the way society handles drug users needs reform.
She suggested the offense be changed from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“When crack is no longer a felony, it’s not going to be as attractive an arrest [to police officers],” Earls said.
Crack use should primarily be viewed as a sickness rather than a felony, she said, adding that doing so will be more beneficial for the drug addict in the long run because it offers a greater possibility that the user will seek treatment.
“Spending three hours in the police office with a crack user is not pleasant,” she said. “The person is dealing with an illness—it’s a treatment issue. Not many active police officers would say that [because] it’s not safe for their careers.”
A harrowing addiction
Stephen Daniels, founder of the Twin City Harm Reduction Initiative, spoke about his crack addiction, which lasted 20 years before he was able to quit. As a pre-medical student at Virginia Union University, Daniels had never used or seen drugs, but curiosity about drug culture encouraged him to experiment with crack. The choice led him down a rocky path of addiction, seriously hurting his health along the way.
His first major health scare would come at age 28 when he lost the ability to use his leg, a result of the drugs “rotting” his hip. After three hip replacements, the doctor refused to do more surgery since he was still using crack, resulting in a hip fusion that left him physically handicapped. Daniels contracted hepatitis C and HIV before seeking help for his addiction, and even after deciding to get clean, it took 14 treatment sessions before he was able to do so.
“My mother looked at me and said ‘God is trying to tell you something,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re probably right.’”
Daniels currently suffers from pancreatic cancer.
Despite battling addiction, the experience gave Daniels important insight on the mind of a drug addict, leading him to participate in community outreach. His work focuses on educating drug users to take precautions to avoid contracting infections that come from heavy drug use, which can lead to a person having unsafe sex or using dirty equipment.
“I did everything in my power to shorten my life, but that was not the case,” he said. “I’ve breathed long enough to realize that what I’m doing now is what I was left here to do until I can’t do it anymore.”
Earls said shifting the focus from criminalizing drug use to making sure drug users are taking precautions to keep themselves safe will have a greater impact in the long run. She noted that when Chicago made it legal for people to carry needles, it allowed police officers to discuss needle use with drug users and give them clean ones.
Giving different types of treatment to men and women, as well as handing out kits with clean supplies and condoms, will also mitigate the transmission of illnesses, MacMaster said.
“We have that chip on our shoulder where we say drug users are bad people, if we give them needles they will keep doing it,” Earls said. “That’s not true—if you give someone needles you could give them a little bit of health care, have a conversation and let them know there are safe places they can go to.”