For crack-cocaine users, the crack pipe is the tool that holds the jagged, off-white nuggets of “rock” cocaine, which are cooked up from the powder base, heated with a lighter or match so the resulting smoke can be inhaled for an intense, fleeting, euphoric high.
The Crack Pipe Epidemic
The “crack epidemic,” which started in Los Angeles in the ’80s quickly spread to large urban areas in other cities because of its low cost and high profit. As a result, crack pipes became a common piece of paraphernalia that users often carried and sometimes discarded onto the street.
The anatomy of a crack pipe is essentially no different from any other type of smoking pipe, used for tobacco, marijuana or methamphetamine. They’re made from a variety of different materials, like glass, metal or even Pyrex, a hard, heat resistant type of glass.
A crack pipe can include some or all of the following elements:
- Bowl: this is generally the bulbous area at the end of a pipe where the crack is placed and then heated with a flame
- Stem: the cylindrical piece that comes from the bowl, which is used for collecting the smoke for inhalation
- Carburetor: though not every pipe has a “carb,” some do. This is a small hole on the side of the bowl used to regulate oxygen from getting to the smoldering drug and burning either faster or slower
- Screen: again, not every crack pipe has a screen, but they are usually things like cut pieces of aluminum screens, brass screens or even products like steel wool. These are cut into small pieces and fit at either the base of the stem or the bottom of the bowl and help to prevent burning pieces of ash from getting inhaled
The “high” from crack cocaine is particularly potent, bringing on extreme happiness and energy, mental alertness and a heightened sense of awareness. Smoking crack cocaine releases a rush of dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with pleasure, and is extremely short-lived, lasting only a few minutes.
To make matters worse, and why crack cocaine is so addictive, is that the body immediately develops a tolerance, meaning a user needs more of the drug to achieve the same “high” they previously felt.
Overdoses & Disease
The increase in cocaine-related overdoses, according to at least one national study, is a result of the increasing epidemic of opioids, including heroin, that’s laced with the deadly drug fentanyl.
While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can’t track overdoses from crack cocaine, specifically, the agency reports a rise in the number of fatal overdoses related to overall cocaine use. In 2010, the NIH estimated less than 5,000 cocaine overdoses, which spiked to 7,000 in 2015.
Another issue often ignored as it relates to crack pipes is the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Huffpo contributor Lydia O’Connor wrote that crack smokers can “…transmit HIV and Hepatitis C when they burn or cut their lips when they burn or cut their lips on broken and makeshift [crack] pipes.”
O’Connor spoke with Isaac Jackson, president of the San Francisco chapter of Urban Survivors Union, who started a free pipe-exchange in the city in 2014. Jackson believes that the spread of disease by crack pipes should be treated like a public health crisis, in much the same way some cities have allowed needle exchanges to slow or stop the spread of disease from intravenous drug use.
“When it comes to crack smokers, there is a deficit of services and a deficit of care”, Jackson told Huffpo.
How Crack Is Produced
Starting with powdered cocaine, crack is created by “cutting” it with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water. This mixture is then heated to generate an oily film of hydrochloride from the powder. Once separated and allowed to air dry, the oil is then rolled into a rock-like substance that dealers can then break into the smaller, more jagged form of cocaine known as “crack”. Crack got it’s name from the “crackling” noise created when these rocks of processed cocaine are ignited.
- “The crack epidemic rolled through some lives like a wildfire and burned slowly through others over the years”
wrote L.A. Times contributor Sandy Banks in 2010.
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