Crack Addiction and Stigma

Crack has been prominent in the war on drugs since the late 70s and is synonymous with general perceptions around drug addiction the world over, leading to many damaging stigmas. You will have likely heard terms like crack head, crack whore, and crack baby amongst others used in everyday language to describe less desirable members of society and those suffering from addiction. Though now normalized, these terms can be extremely damaging to those targeted by them. Read on to learn more about the origins of crack stigma, derogatory language, and how damaging these phrases can be.

Crack addiction stigma

A stigma is a negative interpretation of a societal group or object that is based on preconceived judgments. Stigmas are often personified by ideas that a person or group projects some moral failing when compared with the rest of society and are therefore lesser or unworthy.

Stigmas are often reinforced by people adopting negative ideas without first checking the facts, leading to derogatory assumptions that go unchallenged. These are often focused on people suffering from diseases such as addiction as well as those with mental illnesses.

Crack addiction (or crack use disorder) stigmas are usually directed at specific areas of society, such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and at people of color. Crack addiction is also often used as a generalized derogatory term to describe most forms of addiction.[2]

These stigmas have been compounded since the late 80s through popular entertainment, media coverage, and targeted abuse by law enforcement and other groups.  

Stigmas towards crack use can have devastating effects on those suffering from addiction. Many people who abuse crack hide the fact and won’t seek treatment or help in order to avoid prejudice.[2] 

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Negative terms associated with crack addiction

Negative stigmas around crack come in many forms. These can be targeted at specific groups or as generalized terms to describe those suffering from addiction.

General negative crack terminology

The term “Crackhead” is often used to describe anyone who is considered to display physical signs of addiction. Crack head, junky, and druggy can be extremely damaging phrases as they pigeonhole people based on their appearance and can compound low self-esteem. 

This is also true of the phrase “crack house” or “crack den” which is used to describe poorly maintained homes often in low socioeconomic areas. This can lead to entire areas and communities being written off as beyond help.

Women and negative crack terminology

People suffering from addiction will occasionally pursue criminal activities in order to support their habit. This includes sex work, leading to the term “crack whore” being used to describe women who exchange sex for drugs or money to buy them. [4] This term has become a flippant obscenity that is used regularly to persecute women suffering from any addiction, if they are sex workers or not. 

Pregnant women who have a substance use disorder are also likely to have their child labeled a “crack baby”. Substance abuse of any kind can be harmful to unborn children but the stigma attached can be damaging as well. [4] In some cases, medical professionals may feel less inclined to help expectant mothers if they have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, putting both mother and baby at risk of complications during birth.[4]

Crack and racial prejudice

Since President Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971, the vast majority of criminal proceedings and arrests have been targeted at the black community, especially where crack use is involved. After a year-long investigation by Asbury Park Press, looking at over 30 years of police records, they found that black people are arrested more frequently and punished more severely for drug offenses than white people, despite drug abuse being the same on average between both.[1]  

The same report found that in 2016, black people were still being arrested at more than twice the rate of white people for crack cocaine and pure cocaine offenses.[1] This shows the same level of persecution exists today, with the ongoing opioid epidemic polarizing the issue. The opioid crisis has been seen, on the whole, as an issue that predominantly affects white people. The reaction in the media towards opioid abuse has been largely one of compassion and sympathy, in stark contrast to the dialogue on crack addiction which has remained bleakly focused on arrests and convictions in the black community.[1]

Crack and everyday language

Despite the terrible consequences of crack abuse and how it can destroy lives, the way we talk about it in general terms has become far more relaxed. We will often hear people refer to things as being “like X on crack” or responding to an idiotic remark as “are you on crack?”. These terms have become common parlance and turns of phrase that undermine the severity of crack cocaine addiction.

Crack addiction stigma is commonplace in today’s society, and younger generations are learning to view the disease as a punchline as opposed to an illness.

This flippant view of crack addiction is exacerbated by most facets of cultural expression, including memes and other internet-based phenomena. One of the most widely used of these is the “crackhead meme”. The image depicts Dave Chappelle as one of his comedic characters from his early 2000s sketch show, Chappelle’s Show, Tyrone Biggums. Biggums is depicted as the quintessential idea of the 80s and 90s crackhead, complete with shabby clothes, a twitchy demeanor, and dry lips. The sketches with Biggums always involved the line “You got any more of them/that….?” which was used for the meme as it is known now. [5] 

Tyrone Biggums was a popular character on the show, and the crackhead meme is still widely used today. The image of someone suffering from a crack use disorder as skinny, disheveled, and itchy is common and the acceptance of it as part of America’s nomenclature is as damaging to those who are currently addicted as it has ever been. 

Chappelle has raised the issue of crack vs opioid addiction in one of his most recent stand-ups ‘Sticks and Stones’ in which he highlights the media portrayal of ‘white’ opioid victims against the scathing rhetoric around crack addiction and the black community.[5]

How to reduce crack addiction stigma

The stigma of addictions is damaging and can lead to increasingly negative consequences for those affected. Some potentially negative outcomes of social stigma towards crack addiction include:

  • Addicts hiding their addiction from loved ones and friends, reducing their ability to help
  • Not seeking treatment for fear of being labeled a “crackhead”
  • Becoming more involved with negative people who are accepting of addiction and substance abuse
  • Decreasing sense of self-worth and esteem 

Making base assumptions about those who are suffering from addiction on unfounded bias and cultural stigmas hinders a progressive dialogue about substance use disorders and how to treat an ever-growing problem.

The best way to help reduce America’s long-held stigmas about crack addiction is to educate yourself and to present useful information to those who are willing to learn. Stigma reduction is a slow process and requires constant reinforcement and evaluation.

The stigma surrounding crack use disorders is deeply entrenched in the current American zeitgeist and those suffering will continue to be dismissed and ridiculed unless the collective narrative changes.

For those who are currently struggling with crack abuse, treatment is always available and there are thousands of facilities all over the country that can provide the care and assistance needed to begin recovery