It’s been a good few months for crack cocaine.
This past summer, Philadelphia-based neonatologist Hallam Hurt completed a decades-long study examining in utero cocaine exposure. Hurt began her research in 1989, when crack use ran rampant in America’s major cities. Of particular concern were so-called “crack babies”: children supposedly doomed to lives of drug-induced disability. The panic endured, but decades later, Hurt’s research exposed those fears as unfounded. In a May lecture, she explained her unexpected findings — poverty, she said, is “a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine.”
In September, the New York Times covered the work of another researcher, Columbia University scientist Carl Hart. A former crack user himself, Hart studied the effects of cocaine use on the decision-making capabilities of habitual users. He, too, was surprised to discover his findings didn’t conform to popular narratives surrounding drug use and addiction. His subjects “didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Hart told the Times.
Neither of these examples disproves the reality that crack, like many substances legal and illegal alike, is not particularly healthy. What they do suggest, however, is that our public perception of drugs is often inaccurate. Our wholesale condemnation of crack might have more to do with racial animus and socioeconomics than it does with hard science. Such societal misconceptions are the lifeblood of misguided policy.
This week, crack returned to the spotlight when Toronto mayor Rob Ford admitted he had perhaps “tried” the drug in a “drunken stupor.” His confession followed a scandal-filled summer, during which reporters from Gawker and the Toronto Star claimed to have seen a video of the mayor smoking from a crack pipe. On Oct. 31, when Toronto police announced they’d acquired the footage, Ford’s jig was up. “I’ve made mistakes,” he told reporters in a Tuesday press conference. “All I can do is apologize and move on.”
And move on he will. Just hours after his initial statement, Ford announced he would continue to seek re-election in 2014. His resilience pleases few people. Much like the drug war he espouses, Ford is a near-unmitigated failure. In the past few years alone, Ford has violated Canadian election laws, urinated in public, used homophobic slurs, harassed journalists, ditched official meetings and been accused of sexual assault. It’s no wonder legions of his constituents are calling on him to resign. And although some Ford supporters argue the mayor shouldn’t step down over private matters, it’s clear that in this case, the personal is political.
While he’s now an admitted user of crack cocaine, Ford has spent his career crusading against drugs and the “thugs” who deal them. He’s supported strict mandatory sentencing for gun crimes, and combatted gang violence with harsh penalties, not preventative policy. In 2012, Ford dismissed youth outreach efforts as “hug-a-thug” programs, and voted to defund these crucial initiatives. Ford’s infamous lack of compassion for the poor — he once suggested the best way to combat homelessness would be a “public lynching” — is also problematic; poverty and addiction often exacerbate one another.
The issue, then, isn’t Ford’s drug use — it’s the arrogance he has exhibited as a drug user in support of the war on drugs. Ford’s questionable extracurricular activities are far less morally offensive than the dishonesty he’s shown in words and deeds alike, and his unrelenting expectation that his conduct remain above the law as others continue to unjustly suffer for identical behavior.
Ford’s perpetual flirtation with self-parody makes him easy to dismiss. Unfortunately, the drug war hypocrisy he embodies is far too common in contemporary politics. Even President Obama isn’t immune from this dangerous double standard. Details of Obama’s THC-fueled adolescence as a member of the “Choom Gang” are widely known, but the president’s own administration has taken a less enthusiastic stance toward ending prohibition. Things are improving — in August, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines intended to shield nonviolent offenders from extended prison time. But these changes, while encouraging, do little to undo the damage of a first term defined by harsh federal crackdowns on otherwise-legal dispensaries and familiar anti-drug pseudoscience.
Although a variety of factors fuel the war on drugs, misinformation is among the most powerful. Grassroots activism — by scientists, journalists, scholars and everyday citizens — has been crucial in the push for legalization, but strong leadership from top politicians is desperately needed and often frustratingly absent. As consenting, rational, responsible adults, we should have the right to make meaningful choices about our bodies. That’s what Rob Ford seems to want for himself — he owes his constituents the same.
Marissa Medansky is a junior in Morse College and a former opinion editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.