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Crack’s Residue: A Conversation About When Crack Was King and a Misunderstood Era

Photo by Christine Baker

On a recent fall evening, author and journalist Donovan X. Ramsey joined Associate Professor of English Vaughn Rasberry in Levinthal Hall at the Stanford Humanities Center, where he transported the audience to America in the early 1980s. In a short video, we were reminded of iconic messages that blanketed our console TVs forty years ago. Nancy Reagan told us to Just Say No; Bette Midler convinced us that crack kills; a fried egg implored us to think hard about doing drugs; and then-Senator Joe Biden warned crack users that they’d go to jail for a minimum of five years, no questions asked. 

Ramsey’s book When Crack was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era (2023) is a counter-story to the soundbites and pithy images about the War on Drugs that were as defining for ‘80s kids as Cabbage Patch Kids. Long-listed for the National Book Award, Ramsey’s work reframes the crack epidemic from a macro-political drama to an intimate investigation into human nature, storytelling, and the real roots of the epidemic. To celebrate Ramsey’s work, Professor Rasberry and an engaged Stanford audience asked Ramsey to expand on his past, his writing process, and his thoughts for what’s next in this post-pandemic era.

Why Was the Book Written?

Donovan X. Ramsey grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid-80s in an urban neighborhood hit hard by the epidemic. “My mom tried to shield things from me and my sisters,” Ramsey said, “but the reality of my neighborhood still pierced through.” Michelle, a neighbor down the street, was the most consistent reminder for him that something had a hold over his street. Every night, Michelle would play Patti LaBelle’s heartbreaking ballad “If Only You Knew” so loud that the young author heard it through the walls of his bedroom. Michelle was addicted to crack, her child had been taken away, and she was the talk of the neighborhood. 

“I had so many questions,” Ramsey said, and those questions are what the book was intended to answer. “The book,” Ramsey said, “is about what Michelle was going through, what was going on in my neighborhood, what the crack epidemic was, and what was the scale of the problem.” 

How Was the Book Written?

Answering so many complex questions would inevitably take time, but even Ramsey didn’t expect it to take him five years. The challenges to writing the book went beyond the logistical components of traveling for a year to interview subjects across the country. The challenges existed as emotional baggage and even deeper wounds that his subjects hadn’t yet healed. 

Finding survivors who were willing to revisit this period in their lives was a significant challenge. Once Ramsey found the four central characters of the project, he took his time with the interview process so that the pace and depth of conversations centered on their mental and emotional health. “How do I interview a survivor about the worst moments in their life without forcing them to relive it?” His solution was to approach the conversations as a way of “re-experiencing and rediscovering that time together” as opposed to a one-way survey with his sources. 

Once the interviews were complete, Ramsey was surprised at the amount of time he needed to assess, metabolize, and reconcile the survivors’ words with his own childhood before he could put prose on the page. Ramsey’s commitment to such a mindful and cathartic research phase gives us a finished book that honors survivors and insists that we owe it to them to get the system right. 

Crack’s Story 

When Crack Was King is a book about the many stories about crack in the personal and popular imagination. Crack cocaine differs from powder cocaine in that it’s intended to be smoked instead of snorted. That small distinction in the method of ingestion proved pivotal in both the origin story and criminalization of the Schedule 1 narcotic. 

Cocaine, sourced from the coca plant, was a popular stimulant in the U.S. from the mid-nineteenth century until 1922 when the government banned the substance. Sixty years later, chemistry majors at UC Berkeley developed a pure, smokeable form of cocaine called freebase. Freebase gave way to crack as a safer, DIY alternative that required only baking soda as opposed to ether and a chemistry set. 

Crack enabled a cheap high from a highly addictive designer drug. “The crack epidemic happened,” Ramsey says, “because there was so much disaffection and devastation in urban centers, and in Black and Latino communities especially, that people were looking for something to  [make them] feel good…and they were looking for ways to make money.” Crack was an effective and economical drug that surged through already devastated urban centers, afflicting already vulnerable people. 

If, as Ramsey says, “we have the Bay Area and college students to thank for the crack epidemic,” then we have President Reagan to thank for the beginning of America’s mass incarceration. The racist residue of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 remains today in our prisons and legal system. Most infamously, the Act inculcated an extreme disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack vs. powder cocaine. The implications of this 100:1 sentencing ratio meant that Black and Latino offenders entered the prison system (and stayed for at least five years) for possessing far less crack cocaine than their white counterparts caught with the powdered version of the drug.  

Crack’s Legacy

Crack’s legacy is with us today in our fraught racial discourse, criminal legal system, and debates around harm reduction programs. Crack’s story hangs even thicker in the air now as the opioid epidemic begins its next act as stories are told on streaming platforms and the big screen. Turns out, not much has changed in the American macro-drama from crack to the opioid crisis. 

“When we create so much devastation in whole communities, that’s when drug epidemics happen,” said Ramsey. His book reminds us that humans have a forever relationship with substances. We love our coffee. We build industries around nicotine and alcohol. We want to feel good. That effect is always short-lived, and all of us will be touched by what lingers.

Watch the recording of Donovan X. Ramsey in conversation with Vaughn Rasberry to learn more about When Crack was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era.


Elizabeth Bennett writes about social justice and climate change for mission-driven organizations. She lives in southern California with her husband, son, and a menagerie of adopted animals.