Now purer and more accessible. Shutterstock
Crack emerged in the Americas in the late 1970s as a relatively cheap and transportable form of cocaine that could be more easily distributed than the powdered variety and soon led to what was widely described as an “epidemic”, especially in the US.
Supporters of drug reform in the US have long highlighted the uneven application of the law concerning crack and powder cocaine.
As crack use was associated with the black, urban poor and powder cocaine with the more affluent white middle classes, this policy became symbolic of the racism of the “war on drugs” and the over-representation of black men in the US prison system .
By the late 1980s, crack was also being used in the UK, and in 2002 the British government was concerned enough to produce a national crack strategy. And now, after a relative reduction in use, the drug is making a worrying comeback.
The physical and psychological effects of crack are similar to powdered cocaine – usually cocaine hydrochloride, which is mainly administered through the nostril as a powder. In chemical terms, crack is the free base (non-salt based) form of cocaine, which makes it volatile enough to be inhaled through smoking, although more people in England and Wales are now injecting it.
Both forms of cocaine act as a stimulant and produce similar “highs”. But what makes crack more potent than powder cocaine is the immediacy, duration, and magnitude of its effect, as well as the typical frequency and amount used. There are concerns over the long-term effects of cocaine in all its forms, and it has been associated with neurological and neuropsychiatric changes, as well as damage to the heart and lungs.
The risk of dependence among users of crack cocaine has also been estimated to be two to three times greater than among powder cocaine users.
A ‘rock’ of crack. Shutterstock
Beyond wider drug trends and fashions, price, purity and availability are considered to be important drivers of drug use over time. Not only has the price of crack fallen by 13% since 2007 but it is now more readily available.
Newly established supply routes in the UK have also emerged. Central city gangs distribute crack into coastal and rural areas, along so-called “county lines”. The Home Office reports that the number of seizures of crack in Britain are currently at their highest since 2008, although the weight of seizures has fallen since 2015-16.