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‘When Crack Was King’ author argues the crack epidemic continues to shape American policy

People bring bags of drugs into Tapestry Health's office if they suspect the drugs contain xylazine, a sedative that is starting to permeate illegal opioids and cocaine.
Jesse Costa/WBUR

Two days after college basketball star Len Bias was signed to the Boston Celtics in 1986, he died of a cocaine overdose.

A mere four months later, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, mandating a five-year minimum prison sentence when caught with five grams of crack, whereas the same sentence for powder cocaine required 500 grams. Black Americans were disproportionately impacted: the incarceration rate of Black Americans ballooned from 600 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 1,808 in 2000. The white incarceration rate rose from 103 per 100,000 people to 242, according to the Associated Press.

The narrative of law enforcement and politicians continues to dominate our understanding of the crack epidemic, Donovan X. Ramsey's new book aims to tell the perspective of people personally impacted by the volatility of the era.

From a reevaluation of terms like “crackhead,” “crack baby” or “superpredator,” to an understanding of the appeal to become a dealer in order to escape the cycle of poverty, “When Crack Was King” attempts to complicate our understanding of the crack epidemic and reveal all the ways it continues to impact American policy — from policing to drug laws to mass incarceration.


  • Donovan X. Ramsey, journalist and author of "When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era"
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