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Apr 27, 2019

America’s drug war, revealed

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This episode comes to us from Marketplace’s wealth and poverty team and their show, The Uncertain Hour.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush did his first televised broadcast, speaking directly to the nation about an issue he believed was the gravest domestic threat to America: drugs. Specifically, crack cocaine. In the speech, Bush pulled a baggie of crack out of his desk as a prop, saying it had been seized from Lafayette Park, right across the street from the White House.

This is the story of how that baggie of crack played into the war on drugs and how those policies still are affecting people today.

Credits

Reveal: This week’s show was edited by Kevin Sullivan, with help from Fernanda Camarena.

Marketplace Team: Reported by Krissy Clark. Produced by Caitlin Esch and Peter Balonon-Rosen with production assistance from Annie Rees, Lyra Smith and digital producer Tony Wagner. Edited by Catherine Winter.

Special thanks to Nancy Farghalli.

Thanks to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Center and the Vanderbilt Television News Archive for providing some of the archival footage you heard in this episode.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Let's be real, everybody loves tote bags. Everybody. And Reveal has a brand spanking new one. It's beautiful and much bigger than our last one. All this month we're entering people into the running to get one of these totes for free. All you have to do is sign up for our newsletter. Just text the word "Newsletter" to 63735 and follow the prompts. You can text "Stop" at any time, and standard data rates apply. At the end of April, we'll get in touch and send out totes to the winners. Again, to get in the running text "Newsletter" to 63735.

 

Al Letson: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in the early 70s, and all my memories of where I lived is this kind of utopia. Keep in mind, this is in the eyes of a kid, but it was just perfect. A middle class, black neighborhood where I knew all of our neighbors. I got to play until the street lights came on, and every weekend a bunch of kids came over and hung out in the basement, because my dad had the only VHS player around. The house we lived in, it was a fixer upper. My parents poured all their money, sweat, and love into that home. And by the time we moved to FL in the 80s, my dad was so proud of that house It hurt to leave.

 

Al Letson: I didn't get back to Jersey for a visit til about four years later, in the middle of a crack epidemic. And my little neighborhood was hit hard. The streets I used to play on, they just, looked different. A lot of my friends had left, and those who stayed told us that our old house had turned into a crack house. Boarded up, diminished, and dark. I will never forget the look in my dad's eyes. Like he'd lost something he'd never get back that day.

 

Al Letson: This season the podcast, The Uncertain Hour for Marketplace is looking back at that time, at the crack epidemic and seeing how it connects to the opioid crisis America is dealing with today. The podcast begins by zeroing in on this one seminal moment when the War on Drugs hit the streets of American cities with a new fierceness, and left our laws, our prisons, and our neighborhoods changed in ways we're still dealing with right now.

 

Al Letson: Today on Reveal, stories from The Uncertain Hour. Here's the shows host, Krissy Clark.

 

Krissy Clark: If you happened to be watching TV on the evening of September 5th, 1989, flipping through the channels, you might have seen the image of the White House flashing across your screen.

 

Announcer: Live from the Oval Office, President George Bush addresses the nation. [crosstalk 00:02:51].

 

Krissy Clark: The image cuts to president George HW Bush. The first President Bush. He's sitting at his desk, blue suit, red tie, white handkerchief peaking out of his left pocket.

 

George HW Bush: Good evening. This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening, that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people.

 

Krissy Clark: It was Bush's very first televised address from the Oval Office since being elected president in 1988, and there was one issue he wanted to talk about.

 

George HW Bush: All of us agree that the greatest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: Mostly, one drug.

 

George HW Bush: Cocaine. And in particular, crack.

 

Krissy Clark: Crack, Bush says, is America's most serious problem. It's sapping our strength as a nation, and then 77 seconds in he turns to his left, reaches under his desk, and pulls out this clear, plastic bag full of white, chalky, chunks.

 

George HW Bush: This, this is crack cocaine. Seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: There's a closeup of the baggie. You can just make out the word "Evidence" printed on the top.

 

George HW Bush: Drugs are a real and terribly dangerous threat to our neighborhoods, our friends, and our families. No one among us is out of harm's way.

 

Krissy Clark: But the president said he was going to protect us from this threat, with the ambitious plans to transform the War on Drugs, take it to new, unprecedented heights. And it was all wrapped up in this one dramatic prop. In fact, if you talk to people who happened to see the speech that night, that's the thing they usually remember most.

 

Don S.: He was holding up a bag of crack and saying somebody was selling crack across the street from the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: For Don [Shots 00:04:44], something about that just didn't sound right.

 

Don S.: You know, nothing is impossible when it comes to drugs. But when you break it down and you really think about it, nobody sells crack in front of the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: And Don should know. Because back then, across town, he was also selling crack.

 

Don S.: Nah, everything is in ... not the White House, not nobody downtown where they buying drugs, no. You know, so it was odd.

 

Krissy Clark: So that park in front of the White House where the baggie of crack that Bush held up in his speech came from, it's called Lafayette Park.

 

Krissy Clark: And here we are ... I went there recently. It's lovely. A big green square, lots of benches, fountains, this park is not at all a place that seems conducive to crack dealing. For one thing, there's a lot of tourists taking pictures, holding cameras. It's the place people go to take that iconic shot of the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: Here is a Secret Service agent who is getting his picture taken by tourists. Can we take our picture with you?

 

Secret Service: Sure.

 

Mike Isikoff: You know, needless to say, there's a police presence because of where the park is.

 

Krissy Clark: Michael Isikoff walked through Lafayette Park all the time in 1989. He worked a few blocks away at the Washington Post. He was a reporter there, and he covered the president's speech about the baggie of crack.

 

Mike Isikoff: I was watching it on TV and reporting on it because I was the drug reporter.

 

Krissy Clark: For Mike, knowing what he knew about Lafayette Park, the constant police presence, the tourists, he kept coming back to this question.

 

Mike Isikoff: How did that crack come to be there? That's not a natural place where you would expect to see drug dealing.

 

Krissy Clark: Mike started digging. One of the first calls he made was to the US Park Police who patrolled Lafayette Park. He asked them, "Have you had a lot of crack dealing in Lafayette Park?"

 

Mike Isikoff: And the answer I got was, no. "We don't consider that a problem area, there's too much activity going on there for drug dealers. There's always a uniformed police presence there."

 

Krissy Clark: In fact, the Commander of Criminal Investigations told Mike there hadn't been any crack arrests in Lafayette Park ever.

 

Mike Isikoff: Until this one that led to the crack that was in the President's speech. And that got my attention.

 

Krissy Clark: So Mike starts calling his sources at DEA. He talks to William McMullen, the assistant special agent in charge of the Washington DC field office.

 

Mike Isikoff: Who told me this remarkable story.

 

Krissy Clark: And the story McMullen told him was this. A few days before the President's speech, McMullen had gotten a call from the executive assistant to the head of the DEA, who told him ...

 

Mike Isikoff: That the White House speech writers had written this line into the President's speech and came up with the idea of using a bag of crack as a prop, and could DEA oblige by doing a drug bust around the White House?

 

Krissy Clark: And McMullen Says ...

 

Mike Isikoff: Well, there isn't really a lot of crack dealing around the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: McMullen explained there were plenty of other parts of DC where there was a lot of crack dealing going on. The drug seemed to be flooding the City's poorest neighborhoods at the time, and the DEA was setting up some undercover buys several blocks away.

 

Mike Isikoff: And what he got was, "Any possibility of you moving down to the White House?"

 

Krissy Clark: What is going through your mind as you are hearing these pieces of the story?

 

Mike Isikoff: Wow. So this was all a setup is what I'm thinking. And in fact, it was.

 

Krissy Clark: The details of the setup that Mike Isikoff proceeded to dig up, the intricate choreography involved, it was pretty bonkers. An undercover DEA agent reached out to an informant he'd been working with saying he was trying to set up a crack deal with someone in Lafayette Park. The informant suggested an acquaintance of his, this kid.

 

Mike Isikoff: A teenager who lived in another part of Washington, Northeast Washington, miles away from the White House.

 

Krissy Clark: The kid got a call, was told someone wanted to buy some crack from him and wanted to make the buy in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. And the kid was like ...

 

Mike Isikoff: "Where the fuck is the White House?"

 

Krissy Clark: Mike Isikoff says William McMullen, the DEA agent he spoke to sounded kind of proud of the lengths they'd gone to to get the kid to the White House.

 

Mike Isikoff: "We had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn't easy."

 

Krissy Clark: It was late September, a couple of weeks after the President had delivered his speech that the Washington Post ran Mike Isikoff's article exposing the backstory of the baggie of crack. It was on the front page, headline, "Drug buy set up for Bush speech. DEA lured seller to Lafayette Park." From there, the media was all over the story of a president caught manufacturing reality.

 

Announcer: To the strange story of that bag of crack Mr. Bush held up during his anti-drug speech to the nation earlier this month. The sale was real, but the location was a fake. Mr. Bush's staff wanted to buy some crack ... [inaudible] so the press can hear this.

 

Krissy Clark: The day the story came out, President Bush was doing a press op at a family tree farm in Kennebunkport, Maine. He seemed to be blissfully unaware of the media blow back he was about to get.

 

Reporter: Mr. President, what do you have to say about the drug bust the DEA engineered for your prop in the drug speech?

 

Krissy Clark: Without a beat, President Bush answers.

 

George HW Bush: I think it was great. Because it sent a message to the United States that even across from the White House they can sell drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: A gaggle of reporters jumps in. "But the park police say there's usually no drug activity there."

 

Reporter: They say Lafayette Park has no problem with those drugs [crosstalk 00:10:59].

 

Krissy Clark: Did you manipulate the American people into thinking there was a serious problem in front of the White House? Did you ask for the bag of crack for the speech?

 

Krissy Clark: And Bush owns it.

 

George HW Bush: I said I'd like to have something from that vicinity to show that it can happen anywhere, absolutely. And that's what they gave me, and they [inaudible]

 

Krissy Clark: A week after the story broke about the choreographed crack buy in front of the White House, comedian Dana Carvey was on the stage of Saturday Night Live with a parody of it.

 

Dana Carvey: And the drug problem. Bigger than ever. This is cocaine crack. And I'll tell you something, this crack was bought right here in the White House, three feet from this desk. It's bad, bad!

 

Krissy Clark: This definitely was not the way it was supposed to go. You might wonder, who came up with the idea of the President using a baggie of crack as a prop in the first place. Well, it was a speechwriter named Mark Davis.

 

Mark Davis: We felt that it would bring it home to every American who's been a tourist and walked by the White House to think that this is happening right here in your nation's capitol. If it can happen there it can happen anywhere.

 

Krissy Clark: But he says the plan was never to have the DEA set up a special drug buy near the White House just for the speech. He says the White House told the DEA ...

 

Mark Davis: "Don't do anything special for us. Do not do anything on our behalf. Take this side of inventory."

 

Krissy Clark: Of course, that's not what happened, and when the story became public, White House officials from that time tell me they were afraid it would undermine the whole message they were trying to get across. And I want to spend a little time talking about that message. I want you to understand the full weight of it, which means you need to understand how America was thinking about drugs when President Bush gave that speech. It's very different from where we are today.

 

Krissy Clark: By September, 1989, it had been almost two decades since Richard Nixon first declared a War on Drugs.

 

Nixon: Public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.

 

Krissy Clark: And yet, despite Nixon's hawkish rhetoric, the 70s were overall actually a pretty dovish time for federal drug policy. In fact, Nixon put more money into drug treatment than arresting drug dealers. At the same time, Congress lowered federal penalties for drug trafficking and Jimmy Carter talked about decriminalizing marijuana. By the early 1980s though, the pendulum was swinging the other way.

 

Reagan: The mood towards drugs is changing in this country and the momentum is with us.

 

Krissy Clark: President Reagan relaunched the War on Drugs while he was in office.

 

Reagan: We've taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we're going to win the War on Drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: He was mostly focused on international cocaine cartels. Crack wasn't even mentioned in the national media until 1985. But by the late 80s, the news was full of stories like these.

 

Announcer: There's a new drug called crack out there that's more addictive than cocaine.

 

Female Anncr: Every five minutes, a baby is born in the United States exposed to crack.

 

Announcer: 48 hours on crack street, it could be anybody's street.

 

Krissy Clark: It was a scary time. In the national poll that periodically asks Americans what they see as the most important problem facing the country, by the spring of 1989, the top response was ...

 

Announcer: Not jobs, not the economy, not the issue of war and peace-

 

Krissy Clark: But-

 

Announcer: Drug abuse is the nation's leading, overall concern right now.

 

Krissy Clark: So when George HW Bush sat at his desk in the Oval Office in September of 1989 to make his first live address to the nation, drugs seemed like an issue worth staking a claim, building a reputation on. And so the point of the speech, the big message he was trying to convey to the country was that under his leadership, the War on Drugs, especially on crack, was going to get even tougher than it had ever been.

 

George HW Bush: Tough on drug criminals. Much tougher than we are now. Tougher federal laws, tougher penalties. Beefed up law enforcement, toughened sentences, build new prison space, [inaudible 00:15:08]. And for the drug kingpins, the death penalty.

 

Krissy Clark: I should point out, it wasn't just Republicans like Bush who were gung ho on the War on Drugs back then. By this moment in the 80s, Republicans and Democrats were in the middle of a kind of arms race in the War on Drugs. Each party wanted to be the toughest party. A few years before, in the run up to the midterm elections of 1986, it was Democrats in Congress, white and black ones who spearheaded sweeping anti-drug legislation. Laws that established new mandatory minimum penalties for drugs, major funding for prisons.

 

Krissy Clark: Eric Sterling was a Democratic staffer for the US House of Representatives at the time. He was involved in writing key parts of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

 

Eric Sterling: Intimately, it came out of my word processor in room 207 in the Cannon House Office Building.

 

Krissy Clark: Eric says one of the things that prompted Democrats to draft the anti-drug law was the death of a basketball star named Len Bias.

 

Announcer: He had it all. He had speed. His grace was acrobatic. He was drafted this week by the champion Boston Celtics. He had it all. Until this morning when his heart gave out and he died.

 

Announcer: There are reports that traces of cocaine were found in Bias's system.

 

Krissy Clark: Soon, news stories came out saying it wasn't just cocaine, but crack cocaine that had killed Len Bias. It turned out those news stories were wrong. Bias had used powder cocaine, not crack. But Eric Sterling says the crack rumors took hold, and it all helped fuel the fear around drugs in general and crack in particular.

 

Eric Sterling: In the nine years I worked for the Congress I'd never been involved in such a hasty, half-baked legislative process.

 

Krissy Clark: This is when the notorious sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine got written into law, and the racial disparities that came along with it, since people convicted of crack cocaine offenses were mostly black, while people who were busted for powder cocaine were mostly white. And if you got caught with five grams of crack, a little more than a teaspoon's worth, it would automatically get you the same sentence as getting caught with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine. In both cases, the sentence would be five years in prison.

 

Krissy Clark: Eric says the push to get a tough sounding bill out the door was so rushed that in retrospect he's actually embarrassed by the numbers and measurements he helped Congress come up with.

 

Eric Sterling: Members of Congress, like many of us, are not particularly fluent in the metric system. If it says five grams, you know, let's say is a kilogram bigger than a milligram? Or how many milligrams in a ... it doesn't matter. No sense, what is just, what are these quantities. It's like, "Huh? What? Okay, yeah, wham, bam, done. Don't bother us with the details, I'm running for reelection."

 

Krissy Clark: By the time the legislation passed, Eric says the process had left him with a growing sense of disgust. Pretty soon afterward he left government, started an organization focused on undoing the harsh War on Drugs policies he helped make. But that was a lonely effort at first. Almost everyone was pushing in the same direction: tougher, stiffer, harsher.

 

Krissy Clark: The calculus of the time was that you could earn serious political points by reassuring the average American voter that you were protecting them from the terrifying threat of crack. By holding up that baggie of crack, President Bush could whip up more fear in the public. Fear that he could then get credit for addressing.

 

George HW Bush: No one among us is out of harm's way.

 

Krissy Clark: But there was a problem with the bigger point Bush was trying to make here, because by the time he gave his speech in September of 1989, it was becoming clear that the crack problem was not that widespread, and it was not growing.

 

Craig R.: The idea that it's a plague that's sweeping all sectors of society, this was never true.

 

Krissy Clark: Craig Reinarman is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, and one of the editors of the book Crack in America. He told me in the 80s there was very little evidence to suggest crack addiction was spreading to every corner of America. By 1989, crack use had already peaked and was on the decline. The percentage of household survey respondents who reported using crack in the past year was just half of one percent. For context, in 2016 the percentage who reported abusing opioids in the past year was almost ten times that rate, 4.4 percent. Craig says, compared to that, half of one percent reporting they used crack, that was tiny.

 

Craig R.: Very small. Vanishingly small percentage of the population. The myths that were spread about it being instantly and inevitably addicting, I mean, even at the time they knew that 80 plus percent, closer to 90 percent of people who'd ever tried it hadn't continued to use it.

 

Krissy Clark: And the people using crack weren't really everywhere. People who smoked crack were more likely to be poor, unemployed, less educated. The rate of crack use among black Americans was three times the rate among whites. That's who crack was hurting the most.

 

Craig R.: Not to say that there couldn't be some random kid from a picket fence family who gets caught up in all this, that happens, certainly. But it didn't spread to Westchester County, as the New York Times continently predicted it was doing, it just didn't happen. It's a drug and a high that appeals to those who have virtually nothing left to lose, and not too many other people. If you look at the aggregate statistics, overwhelmingly it's the most impoverished and vulnerable parts of the population.

 

Krissy Clark: All this information was available by the time Bush gave his baggie of crack speech. In fact, I looked through the Bush archives, and I found many of these statistics on crack use and how it was overall on the decline in the briefing memos that the National Institute on Drug Abuse gave the White House. So the White House had those memos as the President's speech writers were working on the speech where the President held up a baggie full of drugs and told Americans that crack was a growing menace and a danger to everyone.

 

Al Letson: In the end, congress gave President Bush what he wanted and then some. His administrations went on to spend more on anti-drug efforts than Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan combined. Over two-thirds of that money went to law enforcement. But what ever happened to that teenager who sold crack across the street from the White House?

 

David M.: I could see my teammates huddled around and conversing about something and I was like, "What's up?" They was like, "You heard about Keith? Keith Jackson."

 

Al Letson: Next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Krissy Clark: Today's episode of Reveal is brought to you by Losing Earth: a Recent History, by Nathaniel Rich. A groundbreaking chronicle on climate change that Elizabeth Colbert calls, "An important contribution to the record of our heedless age." By 1979, we knew nearly everything we understand today about climate change. Over the next decade, a handful of scientists, politicians and strategists risked their careers in a desperate campaign to convince the world to act. Losing Earth is their story and ours. Just published by MCD. More at NathanielRich.com..

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're bringing you stories from the podcast The Uncertain Hour from our colleagues over at Marketplace. This season, they're looking at the War on Drugs and how we got to where we are today.

 

Al Letson: In America, drug laws have historically been about race. The very first one passed was aimed at Chinese opium smokers. And cocaine? It was legal until the early 20th century. Rutgers historian Donna Murch said that changed when it started to be associated with black men.

 

Donna Murch: You have these wild circulations of rumors about African American cocaine consumption that made black men more violent.

 

Al Letson: As for marijuana, it was legal until the great depression when it was tied to Mexican immigrants.

 

Announcer: Marijuana the burning weed with its roots in hell!

 

Al Letson: In the 1970s, freebasing was popular among white people. That's another way to smoke cocaine. But when black people started smoking crack cocaine, politicians led by President George HW Bush went on the offensive.

 

George HW Bush: Tough on drug criminals. Much tougher than we are now. Tougher federal laws. Tougher penalties. Beef up law enforcement. Toughen sentences. Build new prison space for 24 thousand inmates.

 

Al Letson: Krissy Clark, the host of The Uncertain Hour tells us how that crackdown played out.

 

Speaker 18: We gonna take it brother. [inaudible] you tell us where you want us, on the grass?

 

David M.: Oh, you got a little professional camera, oh excuse me.

 

Krissy Clark: A group of old friends is leaning in, arms intertwined, posing for a picture.

 

Speaker 18: Y'all can move in. Y'all can move in, move in, move in.

 

Krissy Clark: This is an unofficial mini high school reunion. A little backyard cookout.

 

David M.: [crosstalk]

 

Krissy Clark: A handful of people are here, former students and teachers from Spingarn High School, a public school in the Northeast part of Washington DC. It's been closed for a few years now, but it was a tight knit school when most of the people at this mini-reunion passed through its halls in the late 80s and early 90s.

 

David M.: [crosstalk]

 

Krissy Clark: Most of them were at Spingarn right around the time that a student, a senior, an 18 year old named Keith Jackson just didn't show up for class one day. David [MacGruder] was a junior, getting ready for basketball practice when he heard something had happened.

 

David M.: I could see my teammates huddled around and conversing about something and I was like, "What's up?" They was like, "You heard about Keith? Keith Jackson."

 

Krissy Clark: David was close to Keith's brother. He'd always liked Keith, so his ears perked up.

 

David M.: Immediately I thought the worst, unfortunate ...

 

Krissy Clark: The worst being ...

 

David M.: His demise, yeah, yeah. So I'm somewhat a pessimist.

 

Krissy Clark: But his teammates were like, no.

 

David M.: "No, no, he's not dead. He was caught over at Lafayette Park. You know, the President did this drug sale."

 

Krissy Clark: Yeah. That drug sale.

 

Krissy Clark: By all accounts, Keith was a quiet guy. People I talk to remember him as a fiddler of pencils, a lover of basketball, usually wearing a sweatsuit. His mom worked two jobs for office cleaning companies, his dad was out of the picture. He lived mostly with his grandparents. He was known to be sweet, unassuming, low key.

 

Krissy Clark: And then, one day, on September 26th, 1989, Keith Jackson disappeared from school and he never came back.

 

Keri: And I think I was in my government class. Everyone was like, "Keith got arrested. He sold drugs in front of the White House."

 

Krissy Clark: [Keri Bridges 00:27:13] was in the same grade as Keith at Spingarn. They'd been in school together since junior high. She says when she and her classmates heard the news about Keith ...

 

Keri: We were like, "What!? Why would he do that?"

 

Krissy Clark: Not why would he sell drugs. Keri says that was actually pretty common at their school. But the bigger question for Keri, and a lot of kids at the time was why would he sell drugs in front of the White House in downtown Washington DC? Fancy, and for the most part, white DC, miles away from where any of them lived.

 

Keri: That was the location and we were like, "You idiot." Like, "Come on, dude."

 

Krissy Clark: And why?

 

Keri: Because that's not where normal transactions would take place. Like ... and I wasn't a drug dealer by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm like, I don't think I knew anyone who would do that in that location.

 

Krissy Clark: The Spingarn student body was almost entirely black. Most kids lived in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was double or triple the national average. These were places unlike the blocks around the White House where crack really did seem to leave no one out of harm's way in one way or another.

 

Keri: My mother at the time was on drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: Which is why Keri lived with her grandmother. One of Keri's uncle's struggled with drugs too.

 

Keri: One of my favorite uncles. He had, from what I was told, smoked so much crack he passed away behind the wheel of the car. We were surrounded by just ... the usage, the selling.

 

David M.: You saw it ... pretty consistently.

 

Krissy Clark: Here's David MacGruder again, Keith's friend who played on the Spingarn basketball team.

 

David M.: You would see someone wanting to do crazy, intense labor for minuscule payment, and you knew what it was. They just want a hit. You know, and some very salacious things would take place that were mind boggling to us as kids. Very, very R-rated. Hardcore, R-rated stuff. But I mean, you saw sexual things. You heard of sexual propositions.

 

Krissy Clark: At the time, a lot of people believed crack was causing decay in neighborhoods like the one David and Keith lived in. The Bush Administration released a policy brief the same day he gave his speech that said, "Crack is responsible for the fact that vast patches of the American urban landscape are rapidly deteriorating."

 

Krissy Clark: But historian Donna Murch says the drugs were getting the blame for economic problems that were already there.

 

Donna Murch: The 1980s is a period when you have serious recessions that are suffered in the cities, social welfare programs were being cut, and you simultaneously had the loss of manufacturing jobs. It was just a really, really devastating time.

 

Krissy Clark: It was in that setting that crack came on the scene in neighborhoods like Keith Jackson's. Essentially a cocaine marketing innovation, prepackaged in a cheap, easy to use form, with a quicker, more powerful high.

 

Donna Murch: It's in a smokeable form, you know, versus snorting a powder cocaine, smoking was something that was familiar to people. So it becomes an easier drug to consume. Initially these rocks were $25 and then they dropped to $15 then $10 an even $5. So it was a way to market a product to a lower income population.

 

Krissy Clark: And lower income people have a much higher risk of drug abuse and addiction than wealthier people. Research shows that recreational drug use cuts across all classes. But if you look at frequent, hardcore drug use, it's more likely among people who live in place with high unemployment rates, lower wages, more de-industrialization, more income inequality. That's true now, with the opioid epidemic and it was true back in the 1980s with crack.

 

Donna Murch: So people are suffering real economic displacement and divestment, and that that in turn creates the conditions for drug use.

 

Krissy Clark: When you talk to former students at Keith Jackson's high school, Spingarn, students who went there around the time he did, in the late 80s, the shadow of crack is never far away in their stories. Not just the using, but the selling.

 

Krissy Clark: At the mini-high school reunion I went to, everyone I talked to who grew up alongside Keith Jackson told me about people they knew who sold crack. Don Shots went to Spingarn in the late 80s, at the same time as Keith. He explained that the demand for crack was high in their neighborhood. Economic opportunities were scarce. So the appeal of selling was hard to resist.

 

Don S.: I grew up around drugs, you know, and I sold drugs myself. They were a fad, something to do. Making money, fast money, buying clothes and cars. It wasn't nothing to get involved with drugs when it's around you all day every day.

 

Krissy Clark: I talked to another guy who sold crack in the 80s as a kid, Reginald Murray. He's from the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. When Reginald was a teenager, and older guy from the neighborhood said he'd pay him up to $500 a week to stand on a corner and sell crack to customers. Reginald did the math, and it was exhilarating. His mom was getting $700 a month to raise a family of four.

 

Reginald: And now I have $500 a week just for me. I mean, I can pay rent, we could get our cable back on, clean up my wardrobe. So it just seemed like a blessing.

 

Krissy Clark: But, Reginald says, from there, the calculations would get blurry.

 

Reginald: You know what you're doing is bad and it kind of bothers you. But then you look at what's being generated from it and it's kinda like, I'm paying my mother's light bills, we have groceries, an abundance of groceries now, you know, it's not when it gets close to the end of the month and the refrigerator's like, on bare status. So all these things are changing and you know something's wrong with it but what you're looking at is so right. And crack cocaine made that possible.

 

Al Letson: But when people got caught selling crack, the criminal justice system would drop a hammer on them.

 

Leroy Lewis: The War on Drugs was never really the War on Drugs. It was the war on us.

 

Al Letson: That part of the story next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today we're bringing you stories from the War on Crack from the podcast The Uncertain Hour at Marketplace. The teenager who sold the crack in front of the White House, Keith Jackson, went on trial in December of 1989.

 

Tracy Thompson: I've never forgotten it.

 

Al Letson: Tracy Thompson was a reporter for the Washington Post who covered the trial. That was almost 30 years ago, but she says she still thinks about Keith.

 

Tracy Thompson: I wonder what happened to him. I think about what a farce that trial was, and how unfair that whole situation was.

 

Al Letson: The host of The Uncertain Hour, Krissy Clark, picks up the story from here.

 

Krissy Clark: In the end, Keith Jackson did not get convicted for the crack sale in front of the White House. But the jury did convict Keith of selling crack three other times to undercover agents in the months leading up to the White House deal. Two of the charges were for selling at least five grams of crack, a little more than a teaspoon's worth. The third was for selling at least 50 grams of crack, about three and a half tablespoons. Keith had no prior criminal record. Tracy says watching Keith during the trial ...

 

Tracy Thompson: He looked like a scared kid. He looked like a scared kid.

 

Krissy Clark: But the judge didn't have much choice when it came time to sentence Keith. The federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that Republicans and Democrats in Congress had passed a few years before, in 1986, they set up strict formulas for how much time Keith would get. Based on the amounts of crack he sold, his sentence came out to ten years in prison.

 

Krissy Clark: When the judge handed down the sentence, he told Keith he seemed like a nice young man who'd been out of control for a period of time. He also told Keith he thought a ten year sentence was too harsh.

 

Tracy Thompson: He apologized to him, and he told him, "I don't have any discretion here. This is what the law says I have to do."

 

Krissy Clark: The judge actually suggested that Keith make a personal appeal to President Bush. "He used you, in the sense of making a big drug speech," the judge said, "But he's a decent man. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence." There's no record anything came of the judge's suggestion. The only public comment Bush ever made about the teenager the DEA lured to the park in front of the White House to buy crack for his speech was back at that tree farm in Maine, right after he'd given his speech. And he said this.

 

George HW Bush: What should I get out of it is a man was busted in front of the White House and I cannot feel sorry for him. I'm sorry they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs, it ruined the children of this country. And I don't care where it is, I'm glad that the DEA and everybody else is going after him with a renewed vigor.

 

Krissy Clark: When Bush was pressed further, he said, "I don't understand. Does someone have some advocates here for this drug guy?"

 

Krissy Clark: Tracy Thompson says the day Keith was sentenced ...

 

Tracy Thompson: Later on I heard that when they put him back in the holding cell that he just completely lost it and he was crying and hysterical and threw himself on the floor of the cell, and they were worried he was going to hurt himself and they eventually had to come in and put him in a straitjacket.

 

Krissy Clark: Keith's arrest, his trial, his sentencing, they got national media attention because of the crazy circumstances that happened to surround Keith's case. The bizarre story behind Bush's baggie of crack speech, the setup. But what might be more important about Keith Jackson's story are the ordinary parts. A young man of color from a poor neighborhood was convicted of a nonviolent, low level drug offense. He was put in prison for a long time. He was put there because of things like mandatory minimums and a zero tolerance policy towards drugs that focused on law enforcement.

 

Krissy Clark: Here are some numbers to consider. Since 1986, when Congress established mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, the number of people in federal prison has almost quadrupled. I should point out that federal prison is just a small slice of the overall US prison population, but when it comes to federal prison, nearly half of all inmates are in for drug crimes, and about 75 percent of them are black or Hispanic. The most common drug charges in federal prison these days are for low level sales. And a report from a few years ago by the US Department of Justice found that in 2012 the majority of people who were in federal prison for crack, like Keith Jackson, got at least ten years in prison.

 

Krissy Clark: Tracy Thompson says covering the federal courts 30 years ago during Keith Jackson's trial, when these even tougher on drugs policies had only recently been put in place, you could just start to see the shape of things to come.

 

Tracy Thompson: At that time they were just funneling a million of these things through the federal courts. You weren't hearing about these cases in terms of here's somebody who got caught with a little bitty bag of crack, you know, something the size of your left molar, they went to prison for ten years and if we keep this up we're going to put a generation of young black men in prison.

 

Krissy Clark: Keith Jackson was released from prison in 1998. I spent months trying to reach him to see what's happened since. I tried old numbers, I sent him letters. Eventually, I did talk to some of his family, found out he has a job in an office, but that was about it. And then Keith called me one night to say he didn't want to be interviewed. He wants to move on with his life, understandable.

 

Krissy Clark: But there are so many Keith Jacksons out there, or I should say in there. So many young men of color charged with low level drug sales and put behind bars for a very long time.

 

Leroy Lewis: If you guys want to just [inaudible 00:40:12]. Oh gracious and merciful Lord, we thank you for this day, for this gathering, for this mini-reunion of Spingarn family and friends, Lord. Now we ask that you would bless this food [crosstalk]

 

Krissy Clark: At the mini-reunion of students and teachers of Spingarn High School, where Keith Jackson went, people bowed their heads and said grace before they dug into the potluck. Everyone I talked to over the turkey burgers and deviled eggs had a story about how zero tolerance drug policies and mandatory minimum sentences had affected them. One form it takes is in the people that are missing from their reunions and mini-reunions. Keith Jackson and lots of others.

 

David M.: It was typical to see someone in our neighborhood and then the next week you're like, "Hey, what happened to such and such?"

 

Krissy Clark: That's David MacGruder again, Keith Jackson's classmate on the basketball team. He says when someone disappeared, odds were good they'd gone to prison.

 

Krissy Clark: A study of police records in DC from the late 80s showed that about 20 percent of young black men in the District, ages 18 to 22 had been charged with a drug crime. Keri Bridges remembers that suddenly people were getting serious prison time for those crimes.

 

Keri: We were like, "Where is this coming from?"

 

Krissy Clark: Keri says when she found out her classmate Keith Jackson had gotten ten years in prison, she felt like he was a scapegoat in the War on Drugs.

 

Keri: Poor Keith, he was still a kid and you pretty much ruined his life. And was it worth it? Was it worth it?

 

Leroy Lewis: The War on Drugs was never really the War on Drugs, it was the war on us.

 

Krissy Clark: That's Leroy Lewis. He taught government and journalism when Keith Jackson was a student at Spingarn High School.

 

Leroy Lewis: That's how many people felt during the Bush speech and during his little drama with the bag of crack, and even with the arrest of Keith Jackson. It was just a betrayal, and it was just a signal: look out, we're coming after you and we're coming in your communities, and we're going to just decimate you.

 

Krissy Clark: The first time I talked to Leroy I mentioned that I was also going to be talking to some of the men who'd worked in the Bush Administration, who'd worked on the baggie of crack speech that Keith Jackson got indirectly caught up in. In fact, I was going to be talking to one of them later that day.

 

Krissy Clark: Just wondering, is there anything you'd like me to ask him on your behalf?

 

Leroy Lewis: Maybe you should ask how fair did he think that that situation was to Keith Jackson? And to all the other young people that were directly affected, negatively by the consequences of what the President did and said.

 

Krissy Clark: I put that question to Bush speech writer, Mark Davis. He's the guy who came up with the idea of using the baggie of crack as a prop.

 

Krissy Clark: I was talking actually to a former teacher of Keith Jackson's. He was angry with you, with the speech writers who sort of began all of this, and he said you guys were part of the problem and he wanted to ask you how fair do you think that situation was to someone like Keith Jackson?

 

Mark Davis: Well I don't think it was fair at all, and it wasn't the situation that the speech writers envisioned. But I do agree, we do have to question doing what we're doing. We've done it for three decades now and it's not working.

 

Krissy Clark: But other people from the Bush Administration see it differently. Edward McNally worked on the baggie of crack speech too. He says yes, mandatory minimums led to unfair sentences for some people. But he made this analogy between the War on Drugs and other kinds of wars.

 

Edward M.: I don't think there's been a war yet where we've been able to avoid any Americans dying from friendly fire. So it's a really tragic, unacceptable and unwelcome reality. I don't think collateral damage is acceptable.

 

Krissy Clark: But maybe unavoidable, it sounds like you're saying.

 

Edward M.: That may be a reality as well.

 

Krissy Clark: But if Keith Jackson and potentially hundreds of thousands of others became as Ed McNally called it, "Collateral damage," caught by friendly fire in the War on Drugs, I'd also want to make sure to point out, in his mind it wasn't all in vain. He reminded me of how bad things were when crack was at its height.

 

Edward M.: It destroyed whole communities. It was block after block and whole neighborhoods taken over by corrupt crack gangs.

 

Krissy Clark: A lot of those realities have changed, Ed told me, and he credits the kinds of tough on drug crimes policies that came out of the Bush Administration he worked for.

 

Edward M.: There are many key elements of the so-called War on Drugs that were successful in bringing about that result.

 

Krissy Clark: Things have gotten better when it comes to crack and the violence that surrounded it. But the real question, right, is whether the War on Drugs, the steep sentences, the tougher punishments, whether that was what made things better. Turns out there's no good evidence showing that it did.

 

Peter R.: There's no evidence! I mean, just to take away good. There's no evidence.

 

Krissy Clark: Peter Reuter is an economist and a Professor of Criminology at the University of Maryland, and he explained to me, law enforcement has basically two main goals when it comes to drugs. One is about morality, punishing people for doing things that we as a society see as bad. But the other goal of law enforcement, Peter says, is much more practical and economic. And it all comes back to thinking about markets for drugs like any other kind of market. That is, ruled by the forces of supply and demand.

 

Krissy Clark: Law enforcement, Peter says ...

 

Peter R.: Is an effort to constrict supply.

 

Krissy Clark: Constrict the supply of drugs to make drug prices go up. Because more expensive drugs should ...

 

Peter R.: Presumably reduce demand. If the probability of getting arrested and going to prison goes up, then in the standard economic model there'll be some people who will decide not to sell drugs at the current price because the compensation they get is not worth that additional risk. That may lead to an increase in price.

 

Krissy Clark: And in its simplest form, this model seems to work. Just outlying any given drug does likely reduce its supply and increase its price. But Peter says as much as he loves the supply and demand theories that drive this model, there's just not evidence to show that in the real world stiffer and stiffer law enforcement or sentencing makes much more of a dent in reducing the drug supply or increasing the price.

 

Peter R.: I have used this model over a very long career, and I would very much like it if there was some evidence that it was correct. In fact, what is striking is how little evidence there is for it.

 

Krissy Clark: And in fact, there's some very striking evidence against this model that drug policy researchers have been banging their heads against for the last few years, namely that if you look at the 80s and 90s when the War on Drugs was ramping up and dealers were more likely to get locked up, the price of crack was falling. More intense law enforcement did not seem to deter people from selling or using drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: Peter has a lot of theories about why that might be. For one ...

 

Peter R.: Drug sellers are very poorly informed about the sentences they face.

 

Krissy Clark: Or, as Don Shots, the Spingarn grad who used to sell drugs put it to me ...

 

Don S.: You know, when you out there doing crime, you don't look at, "Oh, I might get a lot of time if I sell these rocks." People wasn't looking at that, you know? Because it's like everybody think they ain't never gonna get caught. Ain't nobody gonna study the law and say, "Okay, I'm going to look up this crime and see how much it carries if I do this." Nobody does that, you know?

 

Krissy Clark: So if tougher and tougher laws don't work, what does? I asked Peter Reuter that question.

 

Peter R.: Well, I'm going to say, as pedestrian as a public health person, I believe that we can, by expanding and improving treatment substantially reduce the demand for the drugs that cause us the most problem: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine. You know, treatment, even not very good treatment, which is the treatment that's generally available, makes a difference. We can manage this problem, which is all we ever do with social problems, we can manage this problem better by focusing on the demand side.

 

Krissy Clark: It occurred to me that this is pretty much what Keri Bridges, Keith Jackson's classmate whose family struggled with crack, has been thinking all her life about how to handle drug epidemics.

 

Keri: My focus was never to be on the people that are selling drugs. It was, the focus should've been on the people that were using. Because if there's no demand there's no need to supply. So it was always more, we need to do whatever we need to do to get people off of drugs.

 

Krissy Clark: And Keri says for people like her mom and her uncle, there weren't many options.

 

Keri: There wasn't any, "We're going to send you away to rehab. You can go to California and stay at this luxury place where they'll teach you how to meditate." No, they didn't have that.

 

Krissy Clark: She compares that to the way she hears people talk about the opioid crisis now.

 

Keri: They're addicted, and it's a disease and we need to get them some help. Okay. Well we didn't need to get them any help years ago? Okay, I was just wondering. So. As a black women it is ... United States, like what were you doing 20, 30 years ago when it was a problem then? But it wasn't a problem, because they couldn't identify. It wasn't until it stretched over different demographics and different socioeconomic class and then it became a problem. But it's always been a problem. So like, right now, we're like, "That's been a problem. You're new to this, we're not."

 

Krissy Clark: Helping drug users, rather than locking up smalltime dealers, these are lessons about how to deal with a drug epidemic that someone like Keri Bridges has come to know in her bones after she watched so many of her peers, her friends and family turn into the collateral damage of the War on Drugs. There are conclusions that drug researchers like Peter Reuter have come to after studying the data for over 30 years. But it's still worth asking whether we as a country have really learned anything from the War on Crack. What's changed and what hasn't as we deal with a new drug epidemic, the biggest one we've ever faced?

 

Al Letson: We want to thank Krissy Clark and the whole team at The Uncertain Hour for Marketplace for bringing us today's show. The series goes on to tackle the question, if stiffer law enforcement doesn't work, why do drug epidemics end? You can hear about that and what it means for the opioid epidemic on The Uncertain Hour, the latest season just dropped.

 

Al Letson: Today's show was produced by Krissy Clark and Caitlin Esch, along with Associate Producer Peter Balonon-Rosen. We had help from Lyra Smith, Production Assistant [Annie Reese 00:51:53], and Digital Producer Tony Wagner. Catherine Winter edited the show. Special thanks to Marketplace's Nancy Farghalli, Sitara Nieves and Deborah Clark. Our production manager is [inaudible 00:52:05], mixing and sound design from Jake Gorski, with an assist from Reveal sound design team, Jay [Breezy 00:52:10], Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, [Yoruda 00:52:13]. Our CEO is [inaudible 00:52:14]. Matt Thompson is our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is Camerado, Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the [inaudible] Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

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