New Podcast '100:1: The Crack Legacy' Shows the Human Impact of the 1980's Crack Epidemic

100:1 Crack Legacy explores the racist and biased policing of the 1980's War on Drugs. Mark Reinstein/Corbis/Getty

It was crack. That's what many Americans thought in June 1986 when they learned that Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star just drafted by the Boston Celtics, had died after a night of celebration in his dormitory. The latest urban menace had claimed someone white American knew — and liked. How long before it claimed one of their own?

It wasn't crack, actually. An autopsy would reveal that Bias had used ordinary powdered cocaine — not cocaine in rock form, i.e. crack — before collapsing in a fatal seizure. Yet the image lingered, and the fear of crack only deepened. There were crack babies and crack fiends, whole blocks of cities given over to crack houses. Crack was wack, and it was everywhere. Or so it seemed.

Christopher Johnson points to this discrepancy in his excellent and necessary six part podcast, 100:1: The Crack Legacy, produced and released by audiobook company Audible this spring. I almost missed 100:1 because, frankly, there are too many good podcasts and not enough hours to listen to them all. This one, though, deserves your attention. So do the grave social issues it raises.

As it happened, I listened to the podcast a few days before the premiere of Snowfall, a new FX series about the introduction of crack cocaine into the African-American neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. A tamer, less engrossing relative of The Wire, Snowfall relies in part on the much-disputed work of Gary Webb, the journalist who claimed in his "Dark Alliance" series that the crack epidemic was the profitable creation of Central American rebels and their Central Intelligence Agency collaborators. That conspiratorial framework aside, Snowfall works hard to avoid the lurid clichés of South Central popularized by films like Boyz n the Hood. It's too early to say, but one wants it to succeed.

There is also The Grim Sleeper, the excellent new book by former LA Weekly journalist Christine Pelisek. It is about the dozens of women slaughtered in South Central by the Grim Sleeper — eventually identified as Lonnie D. Franklin, Jr. — a serial killer who preyed on drug addicted women and prostitutes. Crack serves, in this book, as a kind of accomplice to murder, driving desperate women to the street and, finally, into the arms of a killer.

Johnson, the 100:1 narrator, begins his story on the same Baltimore streets where Freddie Gray was killed in 2015 while in the custody of that city's police department. Johnson's persuasive thesis is that the kind of aggressive policing that has resulted in the deaths of many black men in recent years had it roots in the 1980s and early '90s, when the response to crack was almost purely punitive.

Johnson recalls, for example, a 1989 speech by George H.W. Bush in which the President remarkably displayed, from his desk in the Oval Office, a bag of crack he said had been bought right across from the White House, in Lafayette Park. "It's as innocent looking as candy," Bush said, "but it's turning our cities into battlezones." Among the proposals he made in that speech was a request for an additional $1.5 billion in funds for drug-related law enforcement.

Subsequent reporting would reveal the dealer who'd sold the crack that served as Bush's prop had to be lured to Capitol Hill; "Where the fuck is the White House?" he'd asked federal agents. But the image summoned by Bush persisted, as did the even more infamous one, invoked by Hillary Clinton in 1996, of "superpredators" with "no conscience, no empathy." Johnson, an even-keeled, insightful but subtly opinionated narrator, notes that the skin color of Clinton's imagined predatory criminals is not difficult to discern.

The name of the podcast is a reference to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which made criminal penalties for crack 100 times greater than those for equal weight powdered cocaine, among other more stringent penalties. President Obama's Fair Sentencing Act gave courts much-needed freedom to be more lenient in the punishment of drug-related offenses.

But now, President Trump's retrograde Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is intent on returning to the law-and-order regime of the 1980s. He seems to think compassion comes with wailing sirens and banging gavels. History suggests otherwise.

Twelve years ago, the Brooklyn-born photographer Jamel Shabazz published a book called A Time Before Crack, a collection of photographs he'd taken of African-American life in New York before the devastation wrought by that drug in the 1980s: bright pictures of happy people posing for the camera, with none of the ominous tropes that would soon become the staple of drug-war reportage.

"Crack never disappeared," Shabazz told Vice in 2011. The drug's resilience speaks less to its narcotic qualities than to the persistence of the social ills that have made drug addiction — whether to crack in South Central or to fentanyl in West Virginia - a staple of American society. We know of the time before crack. We are not yet in the time after.