On the Rocks

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When he first began to go get it, Louie Jones found himself in abandoned Harlem buildings, places crowded with shattered glass, broken mirrors, newfound junkies and prostitutes all “geeking and tweaking.” They were places where one pull could cost $1 and be lit from an anonymous worker behind a wall; where pipes or stems and torches could be rented for $3 a night; where one small rock of crack cocaine, then the new jewel of the ghetto, could cost as little as $5.

Altogether, 10 minutes of intense, pounding euphoria–a little more, depending on the quality of the crack–could cost about the same price as a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Sellers would bark their jingles onto the street like circus carnies.

“Jumbo crack. Jumbo crack. Rock so big gonna make you come back!”

The price of crack hasn’t changed much over the years, and neither has its attraction to users looking for a drug bargain. But virtually everything about the crack experience–including its delivery, its use, its availability and its profitability–is profoundly different.

For one thing, many users don’t smoke crack anymore. They shoot it. Users heat up the rock, mix it with lemon juice or vinegar or rubbing alcohol–“soup,” it’s sometimes called–and inject the serum. This technique first appeared as early as the mid-1980s and has grown steadily in popularity.

“Injecting crack is a phenomenon happening all across the country,” says Stephen Lankenau, an ethnographer who tracked users in 10 American cities for a National Institute for Drug Abuse study that concluded two years ago. Lankenau says that liquid crack has become a cheap substitute for powder cocaine. The effect is a more prolonged high, sometimes over an hour, instead of the 10- to 15-minute rush that comes from sucking on a crack pipe. Shooting up also eliminates the frequent pangs–“geeking and tweaking”–and allows users “to just chill,” as Jones puts it. There’s a downside, of course: Injecting any drug though needles poses the threat of HIV, hepatitis and other health disasters.

The business of crack is also a very different game today. Jones, a former user and dealer who now works as a drug-awareness advisor with the Harm Reduction Coalition and other groups supporting users’ rights, says he remembers dealers raking in as much as $1,500 to $2,500 an hour selling crack in the mid-1980s and early 1990s–often more during the first four days of the month. Those are a dealer’s best days because that’s when most government-issued assistance checks arrive in the mail. With high demand, dealers could unload the drugs quickly. Bundles of a hundred plastic vials filled with crack, “100 packs,” could disappear in hours.

During the boom, check cashing places and barren spots in East New York, Brownsville, parts of Harlem, Washington Heights, and other neighborhoods were havens for dealers, as well as for prostitutes looking to sell themselves for drug money. There were “crackheads,” then “crack whores,” then “crack babies.” Whole blocks were caught in turf wars as dealers battled over their market shares, fueling a rise in violent shootouts. Crack was an epidemic, and the mixture of baking soda and cocaine became part of the city’s cultural fabric.

Today, dealers are lucky to pull in $1,500 a week in sales, says Jones. Law enforcement is stricter than for other drugs, and there are other, less-stigmatized substances to choose from, like methamphetamines, powder cocaine and the ever-popular marijuana. The abandoned buildings and street corners where crack was once purchased are increasingly being replaced by a more flexible network of dealers, Jones says. Operators use cars to deliver crack, along with other drugs, or deal from apartment buildings. A lot of dealers don’t even carry crack anymore. “Then, the game was 24-7,” says Jones. “Now, it’s like 9-5.”

One reason business is so slow is that there are virtually no new crack users–only the same users getting older. “Crack has followed the classic epidemic pattern,” says Andrew Golub, principal investigator at the National Development and Research Institute. He’s been tracking trends among drug users for the last 12 years, since crack first started to slip. “The infected period,” he says, “is through.” The typical crack user, Golub says, is a longtime consumer, male, age 30 to 45, and lives on a fixed income.

No longer a main dish for drug users, crack is often now a nostalgic accompaniment to other drugs like speed and marijuana. It’s also being used as a cheap supplement to counter the effects of other drugs. “The new crack users are heroin users,” says Julia Delancey, a single room occupancy hotel supervisor at Citywide Harm Reduction. A former addict who works daily with drug users in city-sponsored homeless hotels, Delancey says that many of her clients have been using crack to “balance themselves out”–as a means to mitigate the post-high strain of heroin.

Crack’s packaging has also changed. Mostly gone are the plastic vials, with different-colored lids differentiating quality or turf. Today, crack is typically purchased in small, pinkie-finger-sized plastic baggies–harder to identify and easier to hide in orifices.

But what hasn’t changed is the price: Two small pinkie bags can come as cheap as $5. That’s hardly a big mark-up–and a lot of legal risk for little profit. Notes one Harlem confidant who’s friendly with dealers: “Shit, [dealers] can make more money bootlegging cigarettes on the street now than selling crack–and you don’t have to do any time.”

Between the diminishing profits, threat of long jail sentences and a shrinking market, crack’s future is dim. “Without a new make-up, a new presentation, new delivery and a new look, crack will be off the map,” says Jones.

But this is New York, after all, and you can cop crack on the street–it’s just tougher to find. And when you do find it, it might not be called crack. According to federal investigators at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an agency that monitors drug use across the United States, nicknames now in use across the country include yums, cookies, girl, lady, loose, piedra, scottie, shrile, monkey nut (i.e., a big piece), pebbles, bird, rock star and twinkie.

And, just as it evolved in Darwinian fashion, crack might not become extinct so much as mutate. It might be injected more. It might appear faintly, laced against marijuana in blunts called “woolies” or wedged on the tip of cigarettes called “coolies.” It might be cut into crystal meth or in a combo with PCP called “space base.” It might be found wherever cheap elixirs can bring quick thrills and take the pain away.

“The desire doesn’t change much, and the condition of people using hasn’t changed much,” says Jones. “Just the packaging and delivery.”