The Real Reason Rob Ford is High on Crack
by John Facey
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been in the news again this weekend; fresh with a new scandal perfect for exactly the type of languid, point-and-stare, tabloid-friendly journalism associated with his previous antics. Understanding public interest in the ongoing Rob Ford affair raises many questions about the contemporary politics of crack cocaine. It is a dangerously addictive drug which users and non-users alike agree is objectively harmful. Crack, often associated with poverty and desperation, has always been known as the “poor man’s cocaine.” It is derived from cocaine, but reacted with baking soda to produce a cheap, smokeable product with greater mass and a highly politicized social history.
When someone mentions the politics of crack cocaine, people immediately think of the American 1980s: the crack epidemic. Throughout the 80s, an unusual spike in the cocaine trade took place between Central America and the United States. At that time, our legal system chose to enforce the urban crack trade with unprecedented ferocity, while rampant powder cocaine use on Wall Street continued virtually unchecked by comparison. To add to this controversial disparity, the Reagan administration was infamously criticized for having funded a Nicaraguan paramilitary group actively involved in the illicit cocaine trade between Central and North America. Though the Iran-Contra scandal raised new questions about the integrity of our leaders, Reagan’s ferocious, minority-centric drug war continued for decades after his presidency.
So what exactly was the nature of this legal disparity between crack and powder cocaine? Until 2010, A five-year mandatory minimum sentence could be applied to a person caught with five grams of crack cocaine, but a powder cocaine user could only be nailed with five years should he be caught with five hundred grams. Being that crack cocaine is much cheaper than powder cocaine (and that its use is associated with a low-income, urban environment), many believed its hundred-to-one disparity with coke to be unfair. It meant that poor blacks with crack charges were receiving much harsher sentencing for committing essentially the same crime as the wealthier cocaine suspects who dealt in powder; a policy only recently amended by President Obama’s 2010 Fair Sentencing Act.
Four years later, and crack is back in the news; but did we ever expect it would be in Canada, of all places? Yes, Canada; America’s hat, our tamer and more reserved neighbor-to-the north, the butt of much lighthearted humor which often does more to highlight the contrasting grandeur of American politics than to actually criticize the Canadians. Americans are obsessed with Rob Ford, if perhaps for the wrong reasons. Sure, it’s a humorous piece of news worth joking about: A jolly, fat Canadian politician gets caught smoking crack, on camera, twice. But that isn’t the whole story. There are also numerous videos and reports of Rob Ford acting erratically in public, cursing people out, getting drunk and belligerent, and generally negating the responsibilities most commonly associated with the office of mayor.
This brings me to the importance of this story to Americans, and to the real reason why I believe Rob Ford is high on crack. The Rob Ford affair is taken more seriously in Canada, for obvious reasons. Canadian political voices such as Rex Murphy and Pam McConnell were quick to offer their scathing yet perceptive opinions on the second crack video as soon as the story broke, yet the American media largely continued its point-and-stare reporting technique. Not that every institution of news in the U.S. is to blame, but I do believe we should be treating the subject with equal academic attention as our concerned northern allies. If harm reduction is our goal, we can’t simply gawk upon any major scandal involving the politics of crack; even those which take place north of the border. The politics of crack were born in the United States, and if the mayor of Toronto is getting caught smoking it, then maybe it is time we re-examine the American role in drug policy and public policy in general. Obama reducing the disparity between crack and coke sentencing is a positive start, but the road to more harm-reductive drug policy is a long one. Crack users, even under the new law, still face 18x harsher sentencing than powder cocaine users. The war on drugs continues to fail, and the prison population still maintains an inarguable racial bias.
Why is Rob Ford high on crack? Because he is already addicted to fame, public attention and, by his own admission, alcohol. I would also surmise that Rob Ford began with powder cocaine, and switched to crack because it is cheaper (and therefore likely easier to find in a northern metropolis like Toronto). Drugs like heroin and meth are already being cut with toxic chemicals to form fearsome drugs like sisa and krokodil in recession-weary Europe; forcing the EU to completely re-examine their legislature of drug prohibition altogether. Isn’t it is time we begin doing the same here in North America?
I think far more politicians than we realize, whether they are Canadian or American, are using hard drugs like crack cocaine. Rob Ford was just dumb enough to get caught at it on camera (twice). This is a man who has proven many times over that he doesn’t care how big his public persona gets, even if it is for the wrong reasons. Upon quitting the drug, comedian Robin Williams once famously stated “coke is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.” In the case of Rob Ford, perhaps his cult stardom and social influence were at least partly to blame. Also, in the official statement regarding his recent leave of absence, Ford is quoted as saying “I have a problem with alcohol and the choices I have made while under the influence.” I think more people ought to be questioning the nature of this quote. If alcohol is such a gateway drug (proven time and again to have a far more nefarious effect on decision making than cannabis), why is it so much more socially-accepted than other drugs?
I am not saying the penalties for alcohol abuse should be harsher than those for crack, but I think it is time we take a step back and recognize these issues as questions of public health; not simply of law and politics. I believe that addicts, whether they are addicted to crack, alcohol, or both, are ill. Unfortunately, we continue live in a legal system which often treats the most financially vulnerable sufferers of addiction as criminals worthy of being thrown in cages. Should a crack addiction be seen as more “taboo” than an alcohol addiction, simply because it is more illegal? And should alcoholism hold less social stigma than crack abuse, simply because it is legal? With crack again taking the spotlight via a politician safe from the harsh consequences faced by most of its users, perhaps it is time we reconsider the place of this drug in the greater picture of North American public policy.
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