Police officer Tony Rodriguez was patrolling Overtown, a slum adjoining downtown Miami, when he stopped to back up a fellow officer arresting a man for buying cocaine. "I walked up and looked at the coke," he recalls, "and I said, 'Man, that's not coke.' It looked like a piece of rice. The cop said, 'No, that's that new type of coke - crack.' " It was 1983.
Mr. Rodriguez and colleagues were getting a foretaste of the crack epidemic that would sweep America three years later. When it hit, tens of thousands of people were consuming the off-white pebbles of smokable cocaine.
There had to be a culprit. President George Bush's candidate was Colombia's premier drug syndicate, the Medelln Cartel. Eventually, the cartel and its successor were wiped out (though cocaine smuggling hasn't been).
But the search for a crack conspiracy continues. Now some members of the black community, relying on a series last summer in the San Jose Mercury News, point at the CIA because smugglers tied to the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan contras allegedly sold cocaine to a big time crack dealer. The CIA conspiracy theorists may be critical of the government, but they echo the drug-war establishment's premise: Evil plotters - preferably foreigners - are behind the American fondness for drugs.
The crucial recipe
A search for the true origins of crack turns up not one master conspiracy but hundreds of smaller ones. The epidemic couldn't have picked up force without massive and intricately plotted shipments of Colombian cocaine. Yet the crucial recipe for converting powder to crack came from the US drug subculture. It was even published, more than 10 years before the term "crack" was coined. James Inciardi, director of the University of Delaware's Drug and Alcohol Studies Center, found the formula in "The Gourmet Cokebook," an underground publication from 1972.
While Colombia's first generation of druglords was industrializing cocaine production and export, the supply-side theory of drug enforcement was at peak strength in the US. In the early 1980s the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came up with a novel way to cut cocaine output: Persuade the Colombian government to limit access to ether. It sounded commonsensical. Ether is used to convert cocaine paste to powder; no ether, no cocaine. Or so the idea went.
Instead, points out Jim Hall, director of Miami's Up Front Drug Information Center and one of the first to sound the alarm on crack, drug traffickers started dumping cocaine paste itself - basuco - on the South American market and exporting it as well. It was a critical development, because basuco consumers take the drug by smoking it.
Until then, most cocaine smokers in the US were high-end druggies, who used ether to convert powder to a smokable form. Basuco didn't require all that preparation, but it was too foul-tasting to catch on in the US market. Still, basuco made clear that smokable cocaine could be a street-level product.
Small-scale smugglers - the cartel's forerunners - wanted to export to the US and sought out Jamaican and Trinidadian marijuana shippers with well-established routes and US sales networks. In 1981, Prof. Ansley Hamid, an anthropologist at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, did field work in St. Mary's Village, Trinidad, birthplace of a big-time Brooklyn-based marijuana distributor. "Here comes this taxi," the professor says, "and the Colombian guy pulls out five kilos of cocaine and a half-kilo of basuco.. He ... shows [people] how to cook it up and smoke it. The five kilos sold in something like two days."
The business potential
Was this coke peddler the agent of the crack epidemic? No. The best candidates for that role are New York and Los Angeles dope dealers who spotted the business potential of a form of cocaine that produces a wild but cheap high. In New York, the DEA started hearing about crack from undercover operatives in October 1984. The Miami dealers who peddled crack earlier seem to have overlooked this potential.
"We have the best marketers in the country," says Robert Strang, a DEA field agent in New York at the time. "Low-level cocaine dealers built organizations, trying to get as many people as possible using it, because they knew they were going to have immediate return customers."
The absence of a sinister mastermind doesn't make reconstructing the crack epidemic any less depressing an exercise. For one thing, the storm clearly overwhelmed the drug-enforcement agencies. Mark A.R. Kleiman of the University of California at Los Angeles argues that if antidrug efforts had focused on cocaine earlier, they could have nipped the crack epidemic in the bud.
And maybe earlier antidrug campaigns helped create the conditions for crack to spread. Craig Reinarman of the University of California at Santa Cruz maintains that the longtime campaign against marijuana pushed dealers into peddling a less bulky, more profitable product. Whether slow on the uptake or fundamentally misguided, the antidrug warriors don't shine in a look back at the crack epidemic. Neither do peddlers or users. No wonder people would rather find a conspiracy.
*Peter Katel is a correspondent in the Miami bureau of Newsweek.