Weird History

The Story Of The Crack Epidemic That Ravaged Los Angeles In The Late '80s  

Justin Andress
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In the early 1980s, the popularity of cocaine was an at all-time high. The overproduction of the drug in its native Caribbean threatened to drive down the international cost of the drug. In order to help fix the price, Caribbean drug dealers invented a new product designed to spread addiction to new users across the world - crack. This new drug, which was similar to cocaine, was wildly successful and ultimately kicked off a crack epidemic in the ‘80s.

The United States failed to take the surplus of crack flooding the Caribbean in the early eighties seriously. The unprecedented and unchecked growth of drug use could easily be seen in vintage cocaine ads throughout the '70s and '80s. By the time crack entered the scene, cocaine had already ignited a whirlwind of horrific violence from coast to coast. The drug trade revealed brutal crimes like the Cocaine Cowboy murders.

So when the crack epidemic began to ravage cities in the late '80s, few cities felt the crunch worse than Los Angeles. The City of Angeles became the stage for a new kind of extra-militant police enforcement as crack sunk its claws into black and Latino communities. The LAPD undertook a hyper aggressive plan to rid the city of the drug, resulting in the LA Drug Wars and LA Riots. Compiled here are facts about the LA crack epidemic that provide new, horrific insights into the devastation caused by crack cocaine.

Initially, Crack Was 25% More Pure Than Powder Cocaine
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Photo: DEA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When crack first appeared in Los Angeles as early as 1981, it was actually much stronger than its predecessor. Where a normal gram of street coke was around 55% pure, a comparable amount of the first strain of crack was as much as 80% pure

A Dose Of Crack Could Be Purchased For As Little As $5
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Photo: Stan Wiechers/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Because crack was incredibly efficient and inexpensive to produce, dealers could charge a pittance for the product and still make a profit. Thus, the price of a crack rock was around $5 on average (and as low as $2.50 in Philadelphia). Due to how cheap it was, the use of crack spread quickly to less affluent parts of society. It was then that crack began to truly infest American society. 

A Dealer Could Make $500 A Day Selling Crack
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Poverty and unemployment didn’t arrive in Los Angeles at the same time as crack. LA’s dense urban areas had already seen generations raised in poor conditions. With the onset of the crack epidemic, inner city kids discovered they could make big bucks by selling the drug. A dealer could bring home anywhere from $300 to $500 a day, which is a whole lot of money in an impoverished neighborhood. 

Los Angeles Became The Crack Capital Of The World
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Photo: Alfred Twu/Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0

As crack swept across the United States, it took hold of Los Angeles more completely than any other city. At the height of the crack epidemic, Los Angeles was called “the world’s largest retail market for cocaine.” That dubious distinction made the city the unofficial capital of crack throughout the nation. Thus, it was Los Angeles that drew the ire of local, state, and federal authorities like few other cities in the nation. 

By 1987, the DEA reported that crack was available “abundantly” in at least thirteen states across the nation. Los Angeles was noted for having "multi-kilo quantities," clearly indicating that the city had become the frontline in the war on crack.