Dr. Arnold Washton, a nationally renowned physician in the cocaine- treatment business, has taken the position that cocaine abuse has reached horrifying proportions justifying massive reaction. He is quoted to the effect that "crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now . . . almost instantaneous addiction."
It was reported that a New York City youth stabbed his mother to death in a crack-induced frenzy. Some New York law enforcement officials blamed crack at least in part for the 8.3 percent increase in felonies so far this year. It is reported that women sell their bodies in order to buy the substance.
How much of this is true? How much distorted or exaggerated? The answers should start with humility, not the hysteria being generated by "experts." The truth is that the drug is so new, in a sense, that we know very little about its effects. Here are a few cautious observations.
Almost every major drug has been, at various times, treated as a threat to the survival of the nation by some segments of society. Moreover, there seems nothing terribly new about the type of chemical process that produced crack.
Entrepreneurs have for eons sought to produce more potent forms of mind- altering drugs that could be transported more cheaply, sold at a higher cost per unit, appeal to different tastes, and produce more immediate effects. The less natural the drug the more trouble for humans.
Cocaine was largely ignored for years. It suddenly became very popular to millions of Americans who now like to snort it through their noses.
For many thrill-seekers both the stimulation and the risks of the cocaine powder were enough. Then some bored soul decided to refine the powder further for smoking, which is the most rapid way to get drugs to the brain, being even quicker than injection. Thus, freebasing was born.
Because our drug laws make cocaine illegal, the products were outrageously expensive. A gram of cocaine, less than a teaspoonful, costs at least $100. Crack is like cocaine freebase but in a slightly different form - solid soap- like pellets about the size of small green peas. Because they are small, they can be sold for perhaps $10 each.
Of course, this drug is more addicting than cocaine. That should be no surprise. Any drug that is more refined and then smoked will be more potent than its less concentrated relatives.
However, it is premature and perhaps misleading to call it the most addictive drug now known. While I believe that anybody who tries this relatively unknown compound is a fool, my guess is that it is no more addicting than smoked tobacco. As with that dangerous drug, however, some foolish people use crack and do not get hooked.
It is also misleading to view this as a plot to hook our children with a cheap drug. Those people susceptible to the allure of crack will often spend roughly as much as those who use cocaine powder. While the high of crack is immediate, it is also of short duration, necessitating repeated purchases for those at risk. Many adults with money are users.
We do not know how many addicted customers there are out there. One is too many in my book, but if there is truly a national epidemic, I have yet to see the hard proof.
The danger in all of the scare stories is that the drug will be glamorized, creating a market for sellers and producing just such a national epidemic.
There is no easy answer to the riddles and the dangers posed by crack. For now, calm and restraint must be practiced by the media and the experts. In particular, however, government drug abuse officials must somehow regain the trust of the people. We have cried wolf 100 times too often about illegal drugs.
Some, like crack, are terribly dangerous. Others like marijuana and even cocaine powder are, in varying degrees, less so. The government has the responsibility to issue objective, calm information telling the true risks and benefits of all drugs, licit and illicit, so that people can make up their minds.
Until authorities gather the courage to do so, and to redraw some of the legal lines between drugs, we will continue to suffer the consequences of the mad chemical, criminal universe we have created for ourselves and our children.