“Why are governments so enamoured with empty slogans and all too willing to spend loads of money promoting them?” That thought raced through my mind as I sat in a traffic jam in one of the most congested city in the Americas. A bumper sticker caught my eye as I reflected on where I had been and where I was headed. It read in Portuguese, Crack, É Possível Vencer (Crack, It’s Possible to Win) and was prominently display on the back of a Rio de Janeiro city police vehicle, when I visited the city in May 2014. The slogan may sound aspirational, but it is emblematic for how thoughtlessly some countries have chosen to deal with illegal drug use, especially use by the poor.

In Brazil, many people are convinced that the “cracolândias” (and by extension, the people who inhabit them, although this is almost never stated explicitly) are some of the country’s most pressing problems. “Cracolândia,” literally translated as “crack land,” is a pejorative Brazilian term commonly used to describe places where so-called crack cocaine addicts gather to use the drug. And their crack use is believed to have led to a host of problems including unprecedented rates of addiction, crime and unemployment.1

As a neuroscientist with 20-plus years of drug education and research on psychoactive drugs, I find this description eerily similar to depictions of Miami in 1986. I grew up materially poor in one of Miami’s exclusively black neighbourhoods around that same time and decided to study neuroscience specifically because I wanted to fix the drug addiction problem. I believed the poverty and crime that my community faced was a direct result of crack cocaine. I reasoned that if I could cure drug addiction, I could fix the poverty and crime in my community.

We were told, and I whole-heartedly believed, that crack was so addictive that a user only needed one hit and they were hooked; we blamed crack for the apparent lawlessness and widespread joblessness that surrounded us; we referred to women crack users as “crack whores” and accused them of abandoning their children in pursuit of the drug, even though little evidence supported this view; we promoted slogans proclaiming a “war on drugs” and our desire for a “drug-free America.”

Then, the United States Congress passed and President Ronald Regan signed the now infamous Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. These laws set penalties that were 100 times harsher for crack than for powder cocaine violations. Specifically, they required a minimum prison sentence of at least 5 years for people caught with even small amounts of crack, but not so with powder cocaine. This legislation also dramatically increased hiring of police officers and enhanced their role in dealing with drug-related issues. As a result, complex economic and social issues were reduced to criminal justice problems; even more resources were directed toward law enforcement rather than neighbourhoods’ real needs, such as school improvement and job creation.

What is worse is that crack was steeped in a narrative of race and pathology. While powder cocaine came to be regarded as a symbol of luxury and associated with whites, crack was portrayed as producing uniquely addictive, unpredictable and deadly effects and, importantly, was associated with blacks. By the 1980s, of course, references to race in such a context were no longer acceptable. So problems related to crack were described as being prevalent in “poor,” “urban” or “troubled” neighbourhoods, “inner cities” and “ghettos,” terms that were codes for “blacks” and other undesired people.

The racialised discourse on crack was reflected in the enforcement of the Anti-Drug Abuse laws. An astonishing 85 per cent of those sentenced for crack offenses were black, even though the majority of users of the drug were, and are, white. This kind of selective targeting and racial discrimination contributes to the horrifying statistic that one in three black boys born in the US is projected to spend time in prison. By comparison, only one in 20 white boys face this damning prospect.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert.