clock menu more-arrow no yes

A big part of the war on drugs is based on a huge myth

One of the major reasons the war on drugs was escalated in the 1980s was a big lie: the "crack babies" myth.

The pervasive myth, explained by the New York Times in the video above, is that children born to mothers who used crack during their pregnancy would have birth defects and stunted development. Politicians, scientists, and journalists touted one of the earliest studies on this issue, conducted in the 1980s, to warn of the dangers of crack. But the study looked at just 23 babies — a sample size too small to be meaningful. And it only included infants rather than adults who had been exposed to cocaine as infants, so it couldn't measure long-term effects. As a result, its findings generally proved to be wrong through further research, including a huge longitudinal study that found poverty and the ills attached to it were likely the real cause of some babies' issues.

But the study helped fuel widespread hysteria about drugs, with the media constantly warning people of crack babies in the 1980s. And it was one of the reasons the federal government passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which greatly elevated prison sentences for crack and other drugs — in a way that disproportionately hurt African Americans.

The myth should become a learning moment for lawmakers: Maybe sometimes it's better to let the science settle before jumping to conclusions about what government needs to do.

The "crack baby" myth is one of the reasons drug penalties were raised in the 1980s

The myth, characterized as a threat to all children, is one of the reasons the public and lawmakers saw crack as so inherently dangerous in the 1980s and 1990s. It pushed federal legislators to enact laws that made it much easier to punish someone for possessing crack cocaine than powder cocaine: Until 2010, someone would need to possess 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack to get the same mandatory minimum sentence. It was only after 2010 that the disparity was reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

But crack is pharmacologically similar to powder cocaine, meaning crack's effects on the brain are the exact same as powder cocaine. The big difference is crack is smoked — while cocaine is typically snorted — so crack tends to be faster-acting and sometimes produces a stronger effect.

One way crack really differs from powder cocaine is it's much cheaper, making it more accessible to poorer minority Americans. As a result, crack is much more popular among black people, while powder cocaine is more commonly used among white people. (Black and white Americans use or sell drugs at similar rates.)

But this means the harsher punishment on crack is much more likely to affect black Americans. That's exactly what's happened: About 83 percent of crack trafficking offenders in fiscal year 2013 were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 5.8 percent were white, according to USSC. In comparison, 58 percent of powder cocaine trafficking offenders were Hispanic, 31.5 percent were black, and 9.4 percent were white, according to USSC.

Since crack carried a considerably harsher penalty, USSC found more than 67 percent of crack offenders in 2013 were sentenced to five or more years in prison, compared with 56 percent of powder cocaine offenders. And this is after the Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 reduced the sentencing disparities between both substances.

Again, much of this disparity is based on the belief that crack is somehow much more dangerous, and that belief was largely founded on the myth of crack babies. But since the idea caught fire in the media and in politicians' minds at such a crucial point in the development of drug policy, many of its effects have remained with us to this day.