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Updated: Jun 15, 2023

The Crack vs. the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is characterized by an epidemic in prescription opioid addiction and overdose deaths. The crack epidemic is associated with a spike in crime in American cities– homicide, increased gang activity, prostitution. Most crack overdose deaths were black while most opioid overdose deaths have been white. Historically, the country has tended to attribute addiction among oppressed groups as an indicator of moral failing worthy of punishment.

Who's the victims? Who's the Criminals?

Many see race as a crucial factor in how Congress and health officials have focused on prevention and education rather than punishment. White victims make up almost 80 percent of the deaths from opioid overdoses, while, in contrast, in 2000, 84 percent of crack cocaine offenders were black. In other news on the crisis: a 25-year-old pill for nerve pain raises some red flags; the DEA issues an immediate suspension of opioid sales by a wholesale distributor; drug distributors head to Capitol Hill; and more. Source


The crack epidemic in the United States was a surge of crack cocaine use in major cities across the United States between the early 1980s and the early 1990s. This resulted in a number of social consequences, such as increasing crime and violence in American inner city neighborhoods, as well as a resulting backlash in the form of tough on crime policies.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine, which had been widely criticized as discriminatory against minorities, mostly blacks, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.


The name "crack" first appeared in the New York Times on November 17, 1985. Within a year more than a thousand press stories had been released about the drug. In the early 1980s, the majority of cocaine being shipped to the United States was landing in Miami and originated in the Bahamas and Dominican Republic.

Soon there was a huge glut of cocaine powder in these islands, which caused the price to drop by as much as 80 percent. Faced with dropping prices for their illegal product, drug dealers made a decision to convert the powder to "crack", a solid smokeable form of cocaine, that could be sold in smaller quantities, to more people. It was cheap, simple to produce, ready to use, and highly profitable for dealers to develop. As early as 1981, reports of cracks were appearing in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Miami, Houston, and in the Caribbean.

Some scholars have cited the crack "epidemic" as an example of a moral panic, noting that the explosion in use and trafficking of the drug actually occurred after the media coverage of the drug as an "epidemic".


Between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 more than doubled, and the homicide rate for black males aged 18 to 24 increased nearly as much. During this period, the black community also experienced a 20–100% increase in fetal death rates, low birth-weight babies, weapons arrests, and the number of children in foster care. The United States remains the largest overall consumer of narcotics in the world as of 2014.

A 2018 study found that the crack epidemic had long-run consequences for crime, contributing to the doubling of the murder rate of young black males soon after the start of the epidemic, and that the murder rate was still 70 percent higher 17 years after crack's arrival. The paper estimated that eight percent of the murders in 2000 are due to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets, and that the elevated murder rates for young black males can explain a significant part of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.

The reasons for these increases in crime were mostly because distribution for the drug to the end-user occurred mainly in low-income inner-city neighborhoods. This gave many inner-city residents the opportunity to move up the "economic ladder" in a drug market that allowed dealers to charge a low minimum price.

"As a result of the low-skill levels and minimal initial resource outlay required to sell crack, systemic violence flourished as a growing army of young, enthusiastic inner-city crack sellers attempt to defend their economic investment."

Sentencing disparities:

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking of powder cocaine, which had been widely criticized as discriminatory against minorities, mostly African-Americans, who were more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.

Persons convicted in federal court of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine received a minimum mandatory sentence of 5 years in federal prison. On the other hand, possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the sentencing disparity in the year 2000. The number of incarcerated African Americans had become 26 times the amount it had been in 1983.

In 2012, 88% of imprisonments from crack cocaine were African American. Further, the data shows the discrepancy between lengths of sentences of crack cocaine and heroin. The majority of crack imprisonments are placed in the 10–20 year range. While the imprisonments related to heroin use or possession range from 5–10 years, which has led many to question and analyze the role race plays in this disparity.

As for opioid sentencing. In 2020, the average jail time of opioid crimes could mean jail time of up to three or more years and high fines. However, the median time served for drug possession was 9 months. According to Rosen Injury Lawyers, if you are arrested for opioid misuse or possession of higher scheduled drugs, you will more than likely be charged with a felony. Source


An opioid epidemic is when addictive opioid drugs become overused and misused with significant medical, social and economic consequences, including overdose deaths.

Opioids are a diverse class of moderately strong painkillers, including oxycodone (commonly sold under the trade names OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco) and a very strong painkiller, fentanyl, which is synthesized to resemble other opiates such as opium-derived morphine and heroin. The potency and availability of these substances, despite their high risk of addiction and overdose, have made them popular both as medical treatments and as recreational drugs.

Due to their sedative effects on the part of the brain which regulates breathing, the respiratory center of the medulla oblongata, opioids in high doses present the potential for respiratory depression and may cause respiratory failure and death.

The epidemic has been described as a "uniquely American problem". The structure of the US healthcare system, in which people not qualifying for government programs are required to obtain private insurance, favors prescribing drugs over more expensive therapies. According to Professor Judith Feinberg, "Most insurance, especially for poor people, won't pay for anything but a pill." Prescription rates for opioids in the US are 40 percent higher than the rate in other developed countries such as Germany or Canada.

While the rates of opioid prescriptions increased between 2001 and 2010, the prescription of non-opioid pain relievers (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) decreased from 38% to 29% of ambulatory visits in the same time period, and there has been no change in the amount of pain reported in the U.S. This has led to differing medical opinions, with some noting that there is little evidence that opioids are effective for chronic pain not caused by cancer.

Starting in the 1990s with the increase of prescription painkillers, the Opioid epidemic has become a modern health crisis. It has been likened to a plague due to the high number of overdose deaths left in its wake. When people talk about the opioid epidemic, they are referring to a variety of behaviors and events related to the abuse of prescription painkillers and/or Opium-derived illicit substances.

The abuse of prescription Opioids (e.g. Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Heroin, and et cetera), hospitalizations, overdoses, and deaths are all aspects of the Opioid epidemic currently affecting the 2.1 million Americans with Opioid addiction. An average of 115 Americans die each day from Opioid-related overdose.

By Race:

In America, White Non-Hispanic deaths reached 37,113. Blacks, 5,513, Hispanics, 3,932.

Instead of high sentences by courts. The U.S. Justice System focused heavily on rehabilitation. But Despite efforts to promote recovery and reentry, when people who have opioid addictions are released from prison or jail, they often face a significantly higher risk of overdose and overdose-related death than people who were never incarcerated.

In North Carolina alone, the risk of overdose death from opioids was 40 times higher for people released from incarceration in state facilities than it was for the general population in the state.

UNLIKE THE CRACK EPIDEMIC, Resources are designed to assist correctional agencies, community-based treatment providers, probation and parole agencies, and other service providers in better responding to people who have opioid addictions who are in the criminal justice system.

Agencies provided information on how to support people who have opioid addictions in successfully returning to their communities. These best practices include planning and coordination, behavioral health treatment, cognitive interventions, and community supervision as well as community resources such as housing and recovery support services.

Opioid Epidemic and the Courts:

The opioid epidemic has been a major issue in the US and has led to many lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. Recently, members of the billionaire Sackler family were granted immunity from current and future lawsuits over their role in their Purdue Pharma’s opioid business in exchange for a $6 billion opioid settlement. Source

In addition, there have been court cases where judges have allowed makers of opioid products to keep information pertinent to public health and safety under wraps. Source

Implement law-enforcement diversion programs, prosecutor diversion programs, or both to deflect or divert individuals with substance-use disorders from the criminal justice system into treatment at the earliest possible point.

On January 24, 2017, the Bureau of Justice Assistance released funding for a “Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program.” Through this solicitation, courts and their partners may implement overdose outreach projects, technology-assisted treatment programs, and diversion and alternatives to incarceration.

Notice the differences between the heavy-handed approach towards the crack epidemic vs the victimhood, nonjudgmental & far less incarceration methods of the opioid crisis? comment below.


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