(NEW YORK) — Cheap, easy to produce and packing a euphoric high, crack cocaine experienced a dizzying period of popularity in the 1980s, only to leave blighted inner cities and devastated families in its wake.
In recent weeks, the drug long thought of as a poor man’s high is having something of a new cultural moment.
On the heels of reports that NBA player and reality TV star Lamar Odom was using crack and had briefly been to rehab, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford confessed this week to using the drug at a press conference.
“Crack is still out there, but not like it used to be,” a Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman told ABC News. “It’s got lots of competition. We’re just not seeing cocaine usage like we used to.”
From 2003 to 2007, the number of users ranged from 2 million to 2.4 million. In 2012, 1.6 million Americans used all forms of cocaine, including crack, according to the latest statistics by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Other drugs have been much more popular. During 2012, 18.9 million people used marijuana and 6.8 million abused prescription drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Crack is made by cooking cocaine with inexpensive ingredients like baking powder. The drug became popular in the 1980s because it allowed dealers to stretch further a cache of cocaine and sell the produced rocks to users who could not afford to buy pure coke.
Crack still packs the same bang for its buck, but the typical crack user is no longer the inner city “crack head” of popular imagination, said Carl Hart, a Columbia University professor who studies crack.
Most crack users today look very much like Rob Ford, he said.
“A typical crack user is male, white and employed,” said Hart. “The majority of crack users are white and — along with users of all other drugs — are employed.”
In recent years, actor Charlie Sheen confessed to smoking crack, and despite Houston’s 2002 denial.
“Crack is really, really potent and it never really went away. It’s always been a thing in the pop culture and among celebrities,” said Rocco Castoro, editor-in-chief of Vice magazine.
Crack lost some of its stigma, Castoro said, when crystal meth, an even more debilitating drug used by the poor, became popular.
When Sheen admitted his crack use it made his fans “rally around him,” and when Ford confessed “he also saw boost in his popularity and approval,” he said.
Ford is not the first politician to use crack. Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., was videotaped in 1990 smoking crack, a discovery that led to his arrest and conviction.
But while crack continues to carry a stigma, powder cocaine which is pharmacologically identical to crack is widely deemed more acceptable.
President Obama admitted to using powder cocaine in a memoir. President Bush, an admitted alcoholic, was reported to have used the drug by unnamed witnesses and dodged questions of his cocaine use during the campaigns for the White House.
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