The Crack Cocaine Center Of Excellence

2 Feb

Crack Vials Candy Jernigan

From the art piece, Found Dope II, by Candy Jernigan, 308 crack vials and caps she found over a period of 16 days during her walks in mid-eighties East Village, NYC. Photo Credit: Susannah Breslin

The Crack Cocaine Center Of Excellence. You can picture it right? Oh, wait, you’re saying you can’t? But, here in Rhode Island, established in 2016, are our first, Opioid Centers of Excellence, or certified treatment facilities that “meet or exceed established requirement for providing medication-assisted treatment for addiction to prescription painkillers, heroin and other opioids. Certified facilities are authorized to provide the treatment to residents with opioid use disorders, including those enrolled in Medicaid.”

Our governor, Gina Raimondo, who has been working with health officials on a plan to combat what is being called “the opioid crisis” said this at the time of the opening of the first center: “Rhode Island’s first Center of Excellence will make it easier for patients struggling with opioid use disorders to get treatment, and will help healthcare providers on the front lines to best support their patients on the path to recovery.”

This makes me mad. Why would I, or anyone, be mad about this effort to help those addicted to heroin and other opioids?  I am not mad at these current efforts. I am mad about the following.

Through my past work in homeless services in New York City, and in mental health in Rhode Island, I have also worked for over twenty years with people struggling with addiction. I lived in New York from 1986 until 2003. I was way too close to what was called “the crack epidemic.” “Opioid crisis.”  “Crack epidemic.” See what I did there?

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the days when crack overtook New York City. I couldn’t sidestep if I tried, the litter of glass crack vials and their candy-colored tops on East 3rd Street, between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue, the block taken up by Project Renewal’s Men’s Shelter. Too familiar were the pained faces of gaunt men mumbling to themselves while grabbing at imaginary crystals on the ground. I remember how a pit of loneliness welled up in my stomach when I peered down from an office window on West 41st Street, around the corner from Bryant Park. There, a tall, thin, balding man, who was black, crouched over in a grated door-front, crack pipe in hand, lighter in other, and took a deep pull. I had a boyfriend at the time, a charismatic white boy from Southern California, who went from snorting coke to a stint smoking crack. I, in true codependent fashion, tried to save him through pleading phone calls and an anonymous mailing of a brochure to a drug treatment program.

Richard Nixon first coined the term, “War on Drugs” in 1971, when he put anti-drug laws and enforcement of anti-drug policies in place to deal with the “left, marijuana smoking hippies,” and the increase of heroin addiction among returning Vietnam veterans. In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan stepped up the game while at the same time, private, for-profit prisons were being built. Nancy Reagan told us to Just Say No, while Reagan passed federal law that would put a person arrested with five grams of crack cocaine in prison for five years minimum, while someone arrested with 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same sentence for possessing 100 times more. In California, the Three Strikes law, and in New York, The Rockefeller Drug laws, were putting small-time dealers and users in jail for life. People living in Black communities tried to tell us the government brought these drugs into their communities to destroy the people and their neighborhoods. We didn’t believe them. We didn’t do anything about it. Crack was not considered a public health crisis. People were not looked at as having the disease of addiction. They were not offered Medicaid funded Crack Cocaine Centers of Excellence. It was chilling for me to finally see in print these words which were reprinted in an on-line article recently, after all these years of suffering in Black communities:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

– John Ehrlichman, to Dan Baum[41][42][43] for Harper’s Magazine[44] in 1994, about President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, declared in 1971.[45][46]


Like heroin in the black community in the 70’s, crack was criminalized a decade later. Opioids now though, are a public health matter.

Why is that, you ask? I think we know the answer. It’s been written about. I’ve heard it in conversation with some people of color, as well as some white people. But if I must share, what’s being said, and the way I see it, is because the opioid “crisis” is now also heavily impacting the white, suburban, middle-class community. All of a sudden, it matters.  Mr. So-and-So who is the CEO of the town bank, whose son is battling an addiction to heroin and oxycontin, and who almost overdosed several times, wants help, not prison, for his son.

It makes me angry that this is the case. I care deeply for people who are struggling with addiction to heroin and other opiods. I am not of the mind-set which I heard stated in a local coffee shop the other day, “well, if they want to kill themselves with drugs, go ahead. Why should we spend money on NARCAN, when these people have no self-control…” I do believe addiction is a disease, and should be treated as such. I am a strong supporter of people getting help for their struggle with whatever they are addicted to.

But this is unfair. Why was this not the perspective when Black and Brown people were falling prey to the powerful drugs, of heroin and, especially, crack cocaine? Why was it okay to sniff cocaine from glass mirrors at Studio 54, and on top of Wall Street desks, but not smoked out of glass pipes on East 3rd Street? Why were crack addicts portrayed as desperate, crazed, violent criminals, while people addicted to opioids are allowed to be seen as human beings who deserve our sympathy and help?

We destroyed people’s lives, tore apart families, and destroyed the economic health, and familial ties of entire neighborhoods belonging to people of color. The harsh and racially-charged drug law enforcement which began with Nixon, and continued through subsequent presidencies, and measures like the “stop and frisk policy” added to the inequities in arrests and sentencing for people of color versus those from white communities, and filled up our prisons with young Black and Latino men.

This month I came across a poster for a local therapeutic art theater piece centering on personal stories of opioid addiction and how it impacts the addicts, and their families. The poster featured three white actors. I assumed the young man in the photo was the addict, the woman, his mom, and the man with the stethoscope, obviously, the doctor. They all were allowed to look like human beings, like photos you’d see in a magazine, not a police mug shot. They were portrayed as being worthy of our empathy.  I don’t recall this being done for the Black community—the artful showing of people of color struggling with addiction to crack cocaine as human, lovable people.

As someone who uses the arts in her work with individuals struggling with mental health issues, homelessness, and addiction, I believe in the power of the arts to reflect our experiences, and to provide opportunities for healing and growth. From the reviews of this theater piece, it seems it did allow for that to happen, and that is a very good thing, which I support and admire. Again, I am deeply saddened by anyone who loses their life to an overdose on drugs of any kind. I will not dismiss the high number of deaths and near-deaths related to opioid use in this state, and in this country, as not deserving of our attention and care. Yet, one of the actors in the play, who is white, and whose son, in real life, is in recovery from addiction to heroin,  said this to a news interviewer who asked if he felt attitudes about addiction were changing:

“…attitudes are changing…slowly stigma is dropping away, but still there’s shame..I’ve said this before, but..when inner city people were dying, kids were dying, no one paid attention, but now that well-to-do towns are being impacted—white, middle-class kids are dying, now all of a sudden we have a problem..Well, no the problem’s been there for a long time… whatever it took to get the attention, as tragic as it is, okay now we have some attention on it, let’s do something about it..and now healthcare is trying to figure out how to help…”

We can’t go back and change perception, and the harsh, cruel punishment bestowed upon those who fell prey to their addiction to, or to the selling of, crack cocaine. But I want reparations of some sort. For all the Black people who suffered during the “crack epidemic.” I want them to be seen as human. Human beings that suffered from the same illness as today’s opioid addicts. Too late you say? Well then, while there have been some changes made in the drug laws in the last two decades, which have allowed some people in prison for non-violent drug offenses to apply for resentencing and release, how about we simply release these folks? They’ve served more than their time.

Then how about before we make a new generation of white, millionaire, medical marijuana entrepreneurs, how about we release all the Black and Brown men and women in prison for dealing weed, and give them business loans? Find them angel investors. Give them a chance to pitch their plan on Shark Tank. I think this would be a good place to start.

When it comes to addiction, let us look inside ourselves, and see the truth of our own biases, and the destruction they have caused, and continue to cause. Let’s look at all people who suffer from drug addiction, and who turn to dealing drugs due to a lack of economic opportunities for people that look like them, and come from the neighborhoods they live in, and give them the hand up that they need to recover, and live a valued life free from addiction, and the temptation of a lifestyle made to look like it is the only option to survive one’s circumstances. Can we continue to break down the systems of racial and criminal injustices and systems of white supremacy so that the playing field is finally leveled for Black and Brown people in this country? Finally, can we all agree to see Black and Brown sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, as human beings, who suffer just like your white sons, daughters, aunts and uncles who look like you do, and who deserve to be cared for and saved just the same?


Just as I was about to post this essay, I came upon an article on Huffington Post that shared my strategies for reconciliation of past offenses toward people of color and the harsh drug laws enforced against them. Here are a few snippets from the article:

…Prosecutors in San Francisco are reducing and dismissing thousands of past marijuana convictions, an extraordinary move that will retroactively apply California’s recreational marijuana legalization policy for cases stretching back decades.

“While drug policy on the federal level is going backwards, San Francisco is once again taking the lead to undo the damage that this country’s disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a Wednesday statement about the effort.

Gascón announced that his office will be applying the law to all misdemeanor and felony cases in San Francisco dating back to 1975. In total, his office will be reviewing, recalling and resentencing up to 4,940 felony marijuana convictions, as well as dismissing and sealing 3,038 misdemeanor cases that were sentenced prior to the ballot measure’s passage…

“This example, one of many across our state, underscores the true promise of Proposition 64 ― providing new hope and opportunities to Californians, primarily people of color, whose lives were long ago derailed by a costly, broken and racially discriminatory system of marijuana criminalization,” Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “This isn’t just an urgent issue of social justice here in California – it’s a model for the rest of the nation.” 



Providence Journal, CODAC Behavioral Healthcare certified as R.I.‘s first ‘center of excellence’ in opioid treatment, September 22, 2016, Lyn Arditi – War On Drugs

Connecting Point WGBY talk show Interview, June 1, 2016 with Paul Kanzarian and Ana Bess Moyer Bell, Black Voices, San Francisco To Dismiss Or Reduce Thousands of Past Marijuana Convictions,  by Matt Ferner, January 31, 2018

Photo Credit: Susannah Breslin

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