Cocaine, sweet cocaine. For most of the decade the nation seemed in thrall to it. It was the Bolivian Marching Powder that blew through Bright Lights, Big City, the decade’s hippest book, and the ongoing occasion for Miami Vice, its slickest TV show. Everywhere you looked, it sometimes seemed, Wall Street tycoons and movie stars were scrolling $100 bills and snorting wavy white lines off mirrored glass. Then quick as you could say Len Bias, we started to wise up.
A 22-year-old Maryland basketball player, Bias was the Boston Celtics’ top draft pick in 1986, and in the wake of his highly publicized death by cocaine intoxication, awareness of cocaine’s malevolence rose dramatically in the general population. But at the same time, the drug insidiously infiltrated the ghetto. The new cokehead was an urban teen doing crack—or selling it. Made from cocaine and baking soda dissolved in water and cooked into crystals, crack first appeared on the West Coast in the early ’80s. Sold as light-brown pellets—$5 and $10 per vial-it was the fast food of cocaine: cheap and instantly addictive. The initial five-minute rush was so intense and the comedown so hard that the user felt he had to hit the pipe again and again.
A dealer’s dream, crack was society’s nightmare. Knowing the law generally would not prosecute kids under 16, dealers, often young themselves, went into the schools, chummed their victims with free samples and created a new kind of addict. Where heroin plunged the user into oblivion, crack made him bold, irritable, ready to rob and murder. With the arrival of crack, juvenile arrests in major U.S. cities doubled, tripled. As the decade wound down, depressed sections of cities and towns were menaced by adolescent gangs waging street battles after dark—and to hell with citizens caught in the crossfire. All that seemed to interest the crack kids was the flash of their Rolexes, the roar and crackle of their own neurons.