Rob Ford and the Double Standard on Crack Cocaine


Let’s clear something up: the reason we’re laughing at Rob Ford is because he was smoking crack.

If he was using powder cocaine, we might have been surprised. We might have been angry. But we wouldn’t be mocking him the same way.

The fact that we’re making fun of him speaks to the deeply flawed way we view different types of cocaine.

We know there’s a double standard when it comes to how we perceive and treat crack users (stereotypically homeless) versus powder cocaine users (stereotypically CEOs and models).

That double standard is also applied to politicians.

There have been plenty of politicians in office that have admitted using powder cocaine in the past — President Obama comes to mind, or former New York State Gov. David Paterson — without it derailing their political career.

But here’s a little-known fact: crack cocaine and powder cocaine aren’t that much different.

Do the research yourself. The main difference is that crack has salt and can be smoked, which gives you a quick, powerful high. Chemically, they’re almost identical, unless they’re cut with something.

Yet crack makes us giggle when we talk about it.

That’s because it’s often sold and used on the street in poor (and non-white) neighborhoods. When we see people who seem to be mentally ill, particularly in a city, we might say they’re a “crackhead.”

Meanwhile, powder cocaine is perceived as a safer drug and more of a luxury item.

Federal drug sentencing guidelines reflect that. You can have 18 times as much powder cocaine as crack and still get the same sentence as the person caught with crack.

There’s another drug in the mix here: alcohol. It’s a bigger killer than any illicit substance, even opiates. Rob Ford was a big drinker, too (that’s the whole reason he smoked the crack, right???). But the drinking alone never gave him the notoriety he has now.

That just shows how we’re demonizing one particular drug without really digging around for the facts.

In 2010, there were 25,692 alcohol-induced deaths, excluding accidents and homicides.

The number of annual cocaine-overdose deaths is about a quarter of that.

Now if you count accidents and homicides, the number of people killed by alcohol is astronomically higher than cocaine.

We perceive crack use a certain way. It gets the clicks and the laughs, but we need to ask ourselves if that’s because of science or a social cliche.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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