Will Rob Ford Give "Crack Heads" a Better Name?

Rob Ford does not look like a stereotypical crack smoker.

He's white and has money.

While there's nothing incongruous about a big powerful Caucasian guy who gets "hammered on the Danforth," (drinking from a Tim Hortons cup no less) it's considerably more shocking to see him hitting a pipe that's not filled with tobacco or marijuana.

Something about Dave Chapelle's crack-addicted character "Tyrone Biggums" just rings more true. Oh, right. He's poor and he's black.

Even Whitney Houston did her part to reinforce stereotypes. When Diane Sawyer asked her about smoking crack in 2002 she said: "First of all let's get one thing straight: crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack." Houston was most concerned that people would think she had a cheap substance abuse problem.

If there's a white-powdered lining to news that the mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America has a substance abuse problem, it's the opportunity to re-visit dangerous stereotypes about people who smoke crack.

You've probably called them "crackheads" or "crack whores." You've probably used the word "crack baby." I probably have too without blinking. Even one of our most socially progressive commentators, Jon Stewart, spewed an ugly cliché about crack users when he detailed why Ford's apparent homophobia didn't jibe with his addiction: "I'll tell you that attitude won't last. Because at some point while pursuing this crackhead lifestyle, he will end up sucking some *beep*."

Why are we so comfortable using crack users as a verbal punching bag? The reason has roots in racism: Society didn't, and often still doesn't, respect the poor black people who are most associated with the drug. As Jesse Kline from the National Post points out, "I highly doubt we'd see the same level of outrage if he was caught doing cocaine with some white bankers on Bay Street."

In the mid-80s, crack cocaine user became synonymous with the urban poor. The high was relatively affordable and accessible in impoverished communities, and Reagan had just launched the War on Drugs that continues to put a disproportionate number of African Americans in jail. Crack was the evil twin of the fairy dust snorted by elites: it was thought to induce violent behaviour, be more addictive and cause serious birth defects.

The truth, researchers have since discovered, is a lot less dramatic. No one should get a gold star for smoking crack (especially not if you're running a major city and lying about it for more than five months) but they also shouldn't be subject to disproven stereotypes.

Indeed, neuropsychiatrist and author of "High Price" Dr. Carl Hart says crack's reputation has more to do with politicians who want to paint black communities as dangerous than to campaign on giving them better resources. That attitude has cemented some ugly terms.

Turns out "crackhead," everyone's favourite euphemism for someone who's a slave to the drug, isn't so accurate. Hart found between 10 and 20 per cent of users become addicted, which is a similar rate to cocaine and other drugs. And there's no proof that crack in particular makes users violent.

Sorry, but you'll also have to throw the crack baby out with the bathwater. Researchers have found the panic over prenatal exposure was overblown and that growing up in poverty is the real reason many inner-city kids don't have bright futures.

Perhaps the most damaging result of these stereotypes is that they are almost exclusively associated with racial minorities. In fact, crack is only slightly more popular among black people than Caucasians -- five per cent compared to 3.4 per cent in each group have smoked it respectively -- even though African Americans are sent to prison 10 times more often for drug offenses. In Canada, particularly in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Aboriginals make up a large portion of crack users, but they are by no means the only demographic who dabble.

"Everybody uses crack," outreach worker Frank Coburn says in a 2005 CBC video. "Homeowners. People who are housed. There's a doctor that used to come from up North."

The U.K. media have chronicled the rise of the "middle class, white crack user" and Eva Rausing, the wife of a billionaire, recently died with a crack pipe in her hand.

Nobody who has has used or uses crack cocaine, whether a racial minority or a billionaire, should be so condemned for having an addiction comparable to other drugs. In a New York Times article from 1987 about violent attitudes towards "crackheads," a researcher says "Young people are ridiculing crackheads in their neighborhoods, even beating them up..."

These vitriolic stereotypes prevent solutions to drug addiction, a fact no one should know better than Rob Ford. Instead, in 2005, councillor Ford had this to say about harm reduction programs for crack users: "Well, might as well give them a gun. Might as well let them shoot themselves. What are they going to do to our families? What are they going to do when they break into your house for $5? If it's as highly addictive as everyone's saying, they'll go crazy for it."

I hope Rob Ford now sees the ignorance of that statement. And so should the rest of us.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.