This episode comes to us from Marketplace’s wealth and poverty team and their show, The Uncertain Hour.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush did his first televised broadcast, speaking directly to the nation about an issue he believed was the gravest domestic threat to America: drugs. Specifically, crack cocaine. In the speech, Bush pulled a baggie of crack out of his desk as a prop, saying it had been seized from Lafayette Park, right across the street from the White House. 

This is the story of how that baggie of crack played into the war on drugs and how those policies are still affecting people today. 

This show originally aired April 27, 2019.


Reveal: This week’s show was edited by Kevin Sullivan, with help from Fernanda Camarena.

Marketplace Team: Reported by Krissy Clark. Produced by Caitlin Esch and Peter Balonon-Rosen with production assistance from Annie Rees, Lyra Smith and digital producer Tony Wagner. Edited by Catherine Winter.

Special thanks to Nancy Farghalli.

Thanks to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Center and the Vanderbilt Television News Archive for providing some of the archival footage you heard in this episode. 

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz. Hosted by Al Letson.Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey in the early ’70s and all my memories of where I lived is this kind of utopia. Keep in mind this is in the eyes of a kid, but it was just perfect. A middle class, black neighborhood where I knew all of our neighbors. I got to play until the street lights came on and every weekend, a bunch of kids came over and hung out in the basement because my dad had the only VHS player around. The house we lived in, it was a fixer-upper. My parents poured all their money, sweat and love into that home. By the time we moved to Florida in the ’80s, my dad was so proud of that house, it hurt to leave.


Al Letson:I didn’t get back to Jersey for a visit until about four years later. In the middle of the crack epidemic and my little neighborhood was hit hard. The streets I used to play on, they just looked different. A lot of my friends had left and those who stayed told us that our old house had turned into a crack house, boarded up, diminished and dark. I will never forget the look in my dad’s eyes, like he lost something he’d never get back that day.


Al Letson:This season, the podcast The Uncertain Hour, from Marketplace is looking back at that time, at the crack epidemic and seeing how it connects to the opiate crisis America is dealing with today. The podcast begins by zeroing in on this one seminal moment when the war on drugs hit the streets of American cities with a new fierceness and left our laws, our prisons and our neighborhoods changed in ways we’re still dealing with right now.


Al Letson:Today on Reveal, we’re revisiting stories from The Uncertain Hour, which we first brought back to you back in April. Here’s the show’s host, Krissy Clark.


Krissy  Clark:If you happen to be watching TV on the evening of September 5th, 1989, flipping through the channels, you might have seen the image of the White House flashing across your screen.


Speaker 3:Live from the Oval Office, President George Bush addresses the nation.


Krissy  Clark:The image cuts to President George H. W. Bush, the first President Bush. He’s sitting at his desk, blue suit, red tie, white handkerchief peeking out of his left pocket.


President Bush:Good evening. This is the first time since taking the oath of office that I felt an issue was so important, so threatening that it warranted talking directly with you, the American people.


Krissy  Clark:It was Bush’s very first televised addressed from the Oval Office since being elected president in 1988 and there was one issue he wanted to talk about.


President Bush:All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs.


Krissy  Clark:Mostly, one drug …


President Bush:Cocaine and in particular, crack.


Krissy  Clark:Crack, Bush says, is America’s most serious problem, it’s sapping our strength as a nation. And then, 77 seconds in, he turns to his left, reaches under his desk and pulls out this clear plastic bag full of white, chalky chunks.


President Bush:This, this is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by drug Enforcement Agents in a park just across the street from the White House.


Krissy  Clark:THere’s a close-up of the baggie, you can just make out the word, evidence printed on the top.


President Bush:Drugs are a real and terribly dangerous threat to our neighborhoods, our friends and our families. No one among us is out of harm’s way.


Krissy  Clark:But the president said he was going to protect us from this threat with ambitious plans to transform the war on drugs, take it to new, unprecedented heights and it was all wrapped up in this one dramatic property. In fact, if you talk to people who happened to see the speech that night, that’s the thing they usually remember the most.


Don Schotz:He was holding up a bag of crack and saying somebody was selling crack across the street from the White House.


Krissy  Clark:For [Don Schotz 00:04:05], something about that just didn’t sound right.


Don Schotz:Nothing is impossible when it comes to drugs, but when you break it down, you really think about it, nobody sells crack in front of the White House.


Krissy  Clark:And Don should know, because back then, across town he was also selling crack.


Don Schotz:No, everything is in not the White House, not in the way downtown where they buying drugs, no. So, it was odd.


Krissy  Clark:So that park in front of the White House where the baggie of crack that Bush held up in his speech came from, it’s called Layfayette Park.


Krissy  Clark:Here we are. I went there recently. It’s lovely, a big, green square, lots of benches, fountains. This park is not at all a place that seems conducive to crack dealing. For one thing, there’s a lot of tourists taking pictures, holding cameras. It’s the place people go to take that iconic shot of the White House.


Krissy  Clark:Here is a Secret Service Agent, who is getting his picture taken by tourists. Can we take our picture with you?


Speaker 7:Sure.


Krissy  Clark:Cool.


Michael Isikoff:Needless to say, there’s a police presence because of where the park is.


Krissy  Clark:Michael Isikoff walked through Layfayette Park all the time, back in 1989. He worked a few blocks away at the Washington Post. He was reporter there and he covered the president’s speech about the baggie of crack.


Michael Isikoff:I was watching it on TV and reporting on it, because I was the drug reporter.


Krissy  Clark:For Mike, knowing what he knew about Layfayette Park, the constant police presence, the constant tourists, he kept coming back to this question.


Michael Isikoff:How did that crack come to be there? That’s not a natural place where you would expect to see drug dealing.


Krissy  Clark:Mike started digging. One focus the first calls he made was to the US Park Police, who patrolled Layfayette Park. He asked them, “Have you had a lot of crack dealing in Layfayette Park?”


Michael Isikoff:And the answer I got was, No. We don’t consider that a problem area, there’s too much activity going on there for drug dealers. There’s always a uniformed police presence there.


Krissy  Clark:In fact, the commander of criminal investigations told Mike there hadn’t been any crack arrests in Layfayette Park ever.


Michael Isikoff:Until this one, that led to the crack that was in the president’s speech. And that got my attention.


Krissy  Clark:So Mike starts calling his sources at DEA. He talks to William McMullan, the Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Washington DC field office.


Michael Isikoff:Who told me this remarkable story.


Krissy  Clark:And the story McMullan told him, was this. A few days before the president’s speech, McMullan had gotten a call from the executive assistant to the head of the DEA, who told him …


Michael Isikoff:… that the White House speechwriters had written this line into the president’s speech and came up with the idea of using a bag of crack as a prop and could DEA oblige by doing a drug bust around the White House?


Krissy  Clark:McMullan says …


Michael Isikoff:Well there isn’t really a lot of crack dealing around the White House.


Krissy  Clark:McMullan explained there were plenty of other parts of DC where there was a lot of crack dealing going on. The drug seemed to be flooding the city’s poorest neighborhoods at the time. The DEA was setting up some undercover buys several blocks away.


Michael Isikoff:What he got was, “Any possibility of you moving down to the White House?”


Krissy  Clark:What is going through your mind as you are hearing these pieces of the story?


Michael Isikoff:Wow. This was all a set-up is what I’m thinking. In fact, it was.


Krissy  Clark:The details of the set-up that Mike Isikoff proceeded to dig up, the intricate choreography involved, it was pretty bonkers. An undercover DEA agent reached out to an informant he’d been working with, saying he was trying to set-up a crack deal with someone in Layfayette Park. The informant suggested an acquaintance of his, this kid.


Michael Isikoff:A teenager, who lived in another part of Washington, Northeast Washington, miles away from the White House.


Krissy  Clark:The kid got a call, was told someone wanted to buy some crack from him and wanted to make the buy in Layfayette Park, across from the White House. The kids was like …


Michael Isikoff:Where the fuck is the White House?


Krissy  Clark:Mike Isikoff says, William McMullan, the DEA agent he spoke to sounded kind of proud of the lengths they’d gone to to get the kid to the White House. Quote …


Michael Isikoff:We had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy.


Krissy  Clark:It was late September, a couple weeks after the president had delivered his speech that the Washington Post ran Mike Isikoff’s article exposing the back story of the baggie of crack. It was on the front page, headline, Drug Buy Set Up for Bush Speech. DEA Lured Seller to Layfayette Park.


Krissy  Clark:From there the media was all over the story of a president caught manufacturing reality.


Dan Rather:To the strange story of that bag of crack Mr. Bush held up during his anti-drug speech to the nation earlier this month.


Speaker 8:The sale was real, but the location was a fake. Mr. Bush’s staff wanted to buy some crack …


Krissy  Clark:The day the story came out, President Bush was doing a press op at a family tree farm in Kennebunkport, Maine. He seemed to be blissfully unaware of the media blow back he was about to get.


Speaker 9:Mr. President, what do you have to say about the drug bust the DEA engineered for your prop in the drug speech?


Krissy  Clark:Without a beat, President Bush answers …


President Bush:I think it was great because it sent a message to the United States that even across from the White House they can sell drugs.


Krissy  Clark:A gaggle of reporters jumps in.


Speaker 9:[crosstalk] people say [crosstalk 00:10:15]-


Krissy  Clark:But the park police say there’s usually no drug activity there.


Speaker 9:[crosstalk] Layfayette Park has no problem with those drugs [crosstalk 00:10:20]-


Krissy  Clark:Did you manipulate the American people into thinking there was a serious problem in front of the White House? Did you ask for the bag of crack for the speech? And Bush owns it.


President Bush:I said I’d like to have something from that vicinity to show that it can happen anywhere, absolutely and that’s what they gave me and they could tell me where they caught this guy.


Krissy  Clark:A week after the story broke about the choreographed crack buy in front of the White House, comedian Dana Carvey was on the stage of Saturday Night Live with a parody of it.


Dana Carvey:And the drug problem, bigger than ever. This is cocaine crack. I’ll tell you something, this crack was bought right here, in the White House, three feet from this desk. It’s bad, bad.


Krissy  Clark:This definitely was not the way it was supposed to go. You might wonder, who came up with the idea of the president using a baggie of crack as a prop in the first place? Well, it was a speech writer named, Mark Davis.


Mark Davis:We felt that it would bring it home to every American who’s been a tourist and walked by the White House to think that this is happening right here in your nation’s capital. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.


Krissy  Clark:But he says, the plan was never to have the DEA setup a special drug buy near the White House, just for the speech. He says, the White House told the DEA …


Mark Davis:Don’t do anything special for us. Do not do anything on our behalf. Take this out of inventory.


Krissy  Clark:Of course, that’s not what happened. When the story became public, White House officials from that time tell me they were afraid it would undermine the whole message they were trying to get across and I want to spend a little time talking about that message. I want you to understand the full weight of it, which means you need to understand how America was thinking about drugs when President Bush gave that speech.


Krissy  Clark:It’s very different from where we are today. By September 1989, it had been almost two decades since Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs.


President Nixon:Public enemy number one, in the United States is drug abuse.


Krissy  Clark:And yet, despite Nixon’s hawkish rhetoric, the ’70s were overall a pretty dovish time for federal drug policy. In fact, Nixon put more money into drug treatment than arresting drug dealers. At the same time, Congress lowered federal penalties for drug trafficking and Jimmy Carter talked about decriminalizing marijuana.


Krissy  Clark:By the 1980’s though, the pendulum was swinging the other way.


President Regan:The mood toward drugs is changing in this country and the momentum is with us.


Krissy  Clark:President Regan relaunched the war on drugs when he was in office.


President Regan:We’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. We’re going to win the war on drugs.


Krissy  Clark:He was mostly focused on international cocaine cartels. Crack wasn’t even mentioned in the national media until 1985, but by the late ’80s, the news was full of stories like these.


Speaker 14:There’s a new drug called, crack out there that’s more addicting than cocaine.


Speaker 15:Every five minutes a baby is born in the United States exposed to crack.


Speaker 16:48 hours on crack street. It could be anybody’s street.


Krissy  Clark:It was a scary time. In a national poll that periodically asks Americans what they see as the most important problem facing the country, by the spring of 1989, the top response was ..


Dan Rather:Not jobs, not the economy, not the issue of war and peace …


Krissy  Clark:But …


Dan Rather:Drug abuse is the nation’s overall leading concern right now.


Krissy  Clark:So when George H. W. Bush sat at his desk in the Oval Office in September of 1989 to make his first live address to the nation, drugs seemed like an issue worth staking a claim, building a reputation on. The point of his speech, the big message he was trying to convey to the country was that under his leadership, the war on drugs, especially on crack, was going to get even tougher than it had ever been.


President Bush:Tough on drug criminals, much tougher than we are now. Tougher federal laws, tougher penalties, beef up law enforcement, toughen sentences, build new prison space, stiffer bail, and for the drug kingpins, the death penalty.


Krissy  Clark:I should point out, it wasn’t just republicans like Bush who were gung ho on the war on drugs back then, by this moment in the ’80s, republicans and democrats were in the middle of a kind of arms race in the war on drugs. Each party wanted to be the toughest party. A few years before, in the run-up to the mid-term elections of 1986, it was democrats in Congress, white and black ones who spearheaded sweeping anti-drug legislation, laws that established new mandatory minimum penalties for drugs, major funding for prisons.


Krissy  Clark:Eric Sterling was a democratic staffer for the US House of Representatives at the time. He was involved in writing key parts of the Anti-drug Abuse Act of 1986.


Eric Sterling:Intimately, it came out of my word processor in room 207, in the Cannon House Office Building.


Krissy  Clark:Eric says one of the things that prompted democrats to draft the anti-drug law was the death of a basketball star named, Len Bias.


Speaker 19:He had it all, he had speed, his grace was acrobatic. He was drafted this week by the champion Boston Celtics. He had it all until this morning when his heart gave out and he died.


Speaker 20:There are reports that traces of cocaine were found in Bias’ system.


Krissy  Clark:Soon, news stories came out saying it wasn’t just cocaine, but crack cocaine that had killed Len Bias. It turned out those news stories were wrong, Len had used powder cocaine, not crack, but Eric Sterling says the crack rumors took hold and it all helped fuel the fear around drugs in general and crack, in particular.


Eric Sterling:In the nine years I worked for the Congress, I’d never been involved in such a hasty, half-baked legislative process.


Krissy  Clark:This is when the notorious sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine got written into law and the racial disparities that came along with it since people convicted of crack cocaine offenses were mostly black, while people who were busted for powder cocaine were mostly white.


Krissy  Clark:If you got caught with five grams of crack, a little more than a teaspoon’s worth, it would automatically get you the same sentence as getting caught with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine. In both cases, the sentence would be five years in prison.


Krissy  Clark:Eric says the push to get a tough sounding bill out the door was so rushed that in retrospect, he’s actually embarrassed by the numbers and measurements he helped Congress come up with.


Eric Sterling:Members of Congress, like many of us are not particularly fluent in the metric system. If it says five grams, let’s say is a gram, is a kilogram bigger than a milligram or how many milligrams … It doesn’t matter. What are these quantities? It was like, “Huh? What? Yeah, okay.” Wham, bam, done. Don’t bother us with the details, I’m running for the election.


Krissy  Clark:By the time the legislation passed, Eric says the process had left him with a growing sense of disgust. Pretty soon afterward, he left government, started an organization focused on undoing the harsh war on drugs policies he helped make, but that was a lonely effort at first. Almost everyone was pushing in the same direction, tougher, stiffer, harsher.


Krissy  Clark:The calculus of the time was that you could earn serious political points by reassuring the average American voter that you were protecting them from the terrifying threat of crack. By holding up that baggie of crack, President Bush could whip up more fear in the public, fear that he could then get credit for addressing.


President Bush:No one among us is out of harm’s way.


Krissy  Clark:But there was problem with the bigger point Bush was trying to make here because by the time he gave his speech in September of 1989, it was becoming clear that the crack problem was not that widespread and it was not growing.


Craig R.:The idea that it was a plague that sweeping all sectors of society, this was never true.


Krissy  Clark:Craig Rynerman is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and one of the editors of the book, Crack in America. He told me in the ’80s, there was very little evidence to suggest crack addiction was spreading to every corner of America.


Krissy  Clark:By 1989, crack use had already peaked and was on the decline. The percentage of household survey respondents who reported using crack in the past year was just half of 1%. For context, in 2016, the percentage who reported abusing opioids in the past year was almost 10 times that rate, 4.4%.


Krissy  Clark:Craig says compared to that, half of 1% reporting they used crack, that was tiny.


Craig R.:Very small, vanishingly small percentage of the population. The myths that were spread about it being instantly and inevitably addicting, even at the time they knew that 80+%, closer to 90% of people who’d ever tried it hadn’t continued to use it.


Krissy  Clark:The people using crack weren’t really everywhere. People who smoked crack were more likely to be poor, unemployed, less educated. The rate of crack use amongst Black-Americans was three times the rate among whites. That’s who crack was hurting the most.


Craig R.:Not to say that there couldn’t be some random kid from a picket fence family that gets caught up in all this, that happens, certainly, but it didn’t spread to Westchester County, as the New York Times continently predicted it was doing. It just didn’t happen. It’s a drug and a high that appeals to those who have virtually nothing left to lose and not too many other people. If you look at the aggregate statistics, overwhelmingly it’s the most impoverished and vulnerable parts of the population.


Krissy  Clark:All this information was available by the time Bush gave his baggie of crack speech. In fact, I looked through the Bush archives and I found many of these statistics on crack use and how it was overall on the decline in the briefing memos that the National Institute on Drug Abuse gave the White House.


Krissy  Clark:The White House had those memos as the president’s speech writers were working on the speech where the president held up a baggie full of drugs and told Americans that crack was a growing menace and a danger to everyone.


Al Letson:In the end, Congress gave President Bush what he wanted and then some. His administration went on to spend more on anti-drug efforts than Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan combined. Over two-thirds of that money went to law enforcement.


Al Letson:But whatever happened to that teenager who sold crack across the street from the White House?


David McGrueder:I could see my teammates huddled around and conversing about something and I was like, “What’s up, what’s up?” They was like, “You heard about Keith? Keith Jackson.”


Al Letson:Next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re bringing you stories from the podcast, The Uncertain Hour from our colleagues over at Marketplace. This season they’re looking at the war on drugs and how we got to where we are today.


Al Letson:In American, drug laws have historically been about race. The very first one passed was aimed at Chinese opium smokers and cocaine, it was legal until the early 20th century. Records historian, Donna [Merch] said that changed when it started to be associated with Black men.


Donna M.:You have these wild circulations of rumors about African-American cocaine consumption, that it made black men more violent.


Al Letson:As for marijuana, it was legal until the Great Depression, when it was tied to Mexican immigrants.


Speaker 22:Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.


Al Letson:In the 1970s, free-basing was popular with white people. That’s another way to smoke cocaine, but when black people started smoking crack cocaine, politicians led by President Gorge H. W. Bush went on the offensive.


President Bush:Tough on drug criminals, much tougher than we are now. Tougher federal laws, tougher penalties, beef-up law enforcement, toughen sentences, build new prison space for 24,000 inmates.


Al Letson:Krissy Clark, the host of The Uncertain Hour, tells us how that crackdown played out.


Speaker 23:We’re going to take it right … [inaudible 00:23:24], you tell us where you want us. On the grass [crosstalk 00:23:26]-


Speaker 24:… professional camera. Excuse me. [crosstalk] yeah.


Krissy  Clark:A group of old friends is leaning in, arms intertwined, posing for a picture.


Speaker 24:I can move in. Move in, move in. [crosstalk 00:23:37]-


Speaker 25:He’s coming.


Krissy  Clark:This is an unofficial, mini high school reunion, a little backyard cookout.


Speaker 25:[crosstalk] suck our stomachs in.


Speaker 26:That’s right.


Speaker 23:I’m doing it.


Speaker 25:And chin down, chin down.


Speaker 26:Chin down.


Krissy  Clark:A handful of people are here, former students and teachers from Spingarn High School, a public school in the Northeast part of Washington D.C. It’s been closed for a few years now, but it was a tight-knit school when most of the people at this mini reunion passed through its halls in the late ’80s and early ’90s.


Speaker 23:You got us?


Speaker 26:Okay, life has been good.


Speaker 24:One more, let me get one more [crosstalk 00:24:15]. One more. [crosstalk 00:24:17].


Krissy  Clark:Most of them were at Spingarn right around the time that a student, a senior, an 18 year old, named Keith Jackson just didn’t show up for class one day. David McGrueder was a junior getting ready for basketball practice when he heard something had happened.


David McGrueder:I could see my teammates huddled around and conversing about something and I was like, “What’s up, what’s up?” And they was like, “You heard about Keith? Keith Jackson.”


Krissy  Clark:David was close to Keith’s brother, he’d always liked Keith, so his ears perked up.


David McGrueder:Immediately I thought the worst, unfortunate.


Krissy  Clark:The worst being …


David McGrueder:His demise, yeah, yeah, yeah, so I’m somewhat a pessimist.


Krissy  Clark:But his teammates were like, “No.”


David McGrueder:No, no, he’s not dead. He was caught over at Layfayette Park, you know, the president did this drug sale.


Krissy  Clark:Yeah, that drug sale. By all accounts, Keith was a quiet guy. People I talked to remembered him as a fiddler of pencils, a lover of basketball, usually wearing a sweatsuit. His mom worked two jobs for office cleaning companies. His dad was out of the picture. He lived mostly with his grandparents. He was known to be sweet, unassuming, low-key, and then one day, on September 26th, 1989, Keith Jackson disappeared from school and he never came back.


Carrie Bridges:I think I was in my government class. Everyone was like, “Keith got arrested. He sold drugs in front of the White House.”


Krissy  Clark:Carrie Bridges was in the same grade as Keith in Spingarn. They’d been in school together since junior high. She says when her and her classmates heard the news about Keith …


Carrie Bridges:We were like, “What? Why would he do that?”


Krissy  Clark:Not why would he sell drugs. Carries says that was actually pretty common at their school, but the bigger question for Carrie and a lot of kids at the time was, why would he sell drugs in front of the White House, in downtown Washington D.C., fancy and for the most part, white D.C., miles away from where anyone of them lived.


Carrie Bridges:That was the location and we were like, “You idiot.” Like, “Come on, dude.”


Krissy  Clark:And why?


Carrie Bridges:Because that’s not where normal transactions would take place. I wasn’t a drug dealer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m like, “I don’t think I knew anyone who would do that in that location.”


Krissy  Clark:The Spingarn student body was almost entirely black. Most kids lived in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was double or triple the national average. These were place unlike the blocks around the White House where crack really did seem to leave no one out of harms way in one way or another.


Carrie Bridges:My mother at the time was on drugs.


Krissy  Clark:Which is why Carrie lived with her grandmother. One of Carrie’s uncles struggled with drugs too.


Carrie Bridges:One of my favorite uncles, he had from what I was told smoked so much crack, he passed away behind the wheel of the car. We were surrounded by just the usage, the selling.


David McGrueder:You saw it pretty consistently.


Krissy  Clark:Here’s David McGrueder again, Keith’s friend who played on the Spingarn basketball team.


David McGrueder:You would see someone wanted to do crazy intense labor for minuscule payment and you knew what it was. They just want a hit. Some very salacious things would take place that were mind boggling to us as kids, very, very R rated, hard-core R rated stuff. You saw sexual things, you heard of sexual propositions.


Krissy  Clark:At the time, a lot of people believed crack was causing decay in neighborhoods like the one David and Keith lived in. The Bush administration released a policy brief the same day he gave his speech that said quote, “Crack is responsible for the fact that vast patches of the American urban landscape are rapidly deteriorating.”


Krissy  Clark:But historian Donna Merch says the drugs were getting the blame for economic problems that were already there.


Donna M.:The 1980s is a period when you have serious recessions that are suffered in the cities. Social welfare programs were being cut and you simultaneously had the loss of manufacturing jobs. It was just a really, really devastating time.


Krissy  Clark:It was in that setting that crack came on the scene in neighborhoods like Keith Jackson’s. Essentially a cocaine marketing innovation, prepackaged in a cheap, easy-to-use form with a quicker, more powerful high.


Donna M.:It’s in a smokable form, versus snorting powder cocaine and smoking was something that was familiar to people, so it becomes an easier drug to consume. Initially these rocks were $25 and then they dropped to $15, then $10, even $5. It was a way to market a product to a lower income population.


Krissy  Clark:Lower income people have a much higher risk of drug use and addiction than wealthier people. Research shows that recreational drug use cuts across all classes, but if you look at frequent, hardcore drug use, it’s more likely among people who live in places with high unemployment rates, lower wages, more de-industrialization, more income inequality. That’s true now with the opioid epidemic and it was true back in the 1980’s with crack.


Donna M.:People are suffering real economic displacement and divestment and that, that in turn, creates the conditions for drug use.


Krissy  Clark:When you talk to former students at Keith Jackson’s high school, Spingarn, students who went there around the time he did in the late ’80s, the shadow of crack is never far away in their stories. Not just the using, but the selling.


Krissy  Clark:At the mini high school reunion that I went to, everyone I talked to who grew up alongside Keith Jackson told me about people they knew who sold crack. Don Schotz went to Spingarn in the late ’80s at the same time as Keith. He explained that the demand for crack was high in their neighborhoods. Economic opportunities were scarce and so the appeal of selling was hard to resist.


Don Schotz:I grew up around drugs and sold drugs myself. It was a fad, something to do. Making money, fast money, buying clothes and cars, it wasn’t nothing to get involved in drugs when it’s around you all day, every day.


Krissy  Clark:I talked to another guy who sold crack in the ’80s as a kid, Reginald Murray. He’s from the other side of the country in Los Angeles. When Reginald was a teenager, an older guy from the neighborhood said he’d pay him up to $500 a week to stand on a corner and sell crack to customers.


Krissy  Clark:Reginald did the math and it was exhilarating. His mom was getting $700 a month to raise a family of four.


Reginald Murray:I earned $500 a week, just for me. I could pay rent, we can get our cable back on, clean up my wardrobe. It just seemed like a blessing.


Krissy  Clark:But Reginald says from there the calculations would get blurry.


Reginald Murray:You know what you’re doing is bad and it kind of bothers you, but then you look at what’s being generated from it and you’re just kind of like, I’m paying my mother’s light bills and the groceries and an abundance of groceries, it’s not when you get close to the end of the month and the refrigerator’s like, on bare status. All things are changing and you know there’s so much wrong with it but what you’re looking at is so right. Crack cocaine made that possible.


Al Letson:But when people got caught selling crack, the criminal justice system would drop a hammer on them.


Leroy Lewis:The war on drugs was never really the war on drugs. It was the war on us.


Al Letson:That part of the story next, on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re bringing you stories from the war on crack from the podcast, The Uncertain Hour at Marketplace. The teenager who sold the crack in front of the White House, Keith Jackson went on trial in December of 1989.


Tracy Thompson:I’ve never forgotten it.


Al Letson:Tracy Thompson was a reporter for the Washington Post, who covered the trial. That was almost 30 years ago, but she says she still thinks about Keith.


Tracy Thompson:I wonder what happened to him. I think about what a farce that trial was and how unfair that whole situation was.


Al Letson:The host of The Uncertain Hour, Krissy Clark, picks up the story from here.


Krissy  Clark:In the end, Keith Jackson did not get convicted for the crack sale in front of the White House, but the jury did convict Keith of selling crack three other times to undercover agents in the months leading up to the White House deal.


Krissy  Clark:Two of the charges were for selling at least five grams of crack, a little more than a teaspoon’s worth. The third was for selling at least 50 grams of crack, about three and half Tablespoons.


Krissy  Clark:Keith had no prior criminal record. Tracy says watching Keith during the trial …


Tracy Thompson:He looked like a scared kid. He looked like a scared kid.


Krissy  Clark:But the judge didn’t have much choice when it came time to sentence Keith. The federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that republicans and democrats in Congress had passed a few years before in 1986, they set up strict formulas for how much time Keith would get. Based on the amounts of crack he sold, his sentence came out to 10 years in prison.


Krissy  Clark:When the judge handed down the sentence, he told Keith he seemed like a nice, young man who’d been out of control for a period of time. He also told Keith he thought a 10 year sentence was too harsh.


Tracy Thompson:He apologized to him and he told him, “I don’t have any discretion here. This is what the law says I have to do.”


Krissy  Clark:The judge actually suggested that Keith make a personal appeal to President Bush. “He used you in the sense of making a big drug speech,” the judge said, “But he’s a decent man. Maybe he can find a way to reduce at least some of that sentence.”


Krissy  Clark:There’s no record anything came of the judge’s suggestion. The only public comment Bush ever made about the teenager the DEA lured to the front of the White House to buy crack for his speech was back at that tree farm in Maine, right after he’d given his speech and he said this …


President Bush:[crosstalk] out of it is, a man was busted in front of the White House and I cannot feel sorry for him. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country and I don’t care where it is. I’m glad that the DEA and everybody else is going after him with a renewed vigor.


Krissy  Clark:When Bush was pressed further, he said, “I don’t understand, does someone have some advocates here for this drug guy?”


Krissy  Clark:Tracy Thompson says the day Keith was sentenced …


Tracy Thompson:Later on, I heard that when they put him back in the holding cell that he just completely lost it and he was crying and hysterical and threw himself on the floor of the cell and they were worried he was going to hurt himself and they eventually had to come in and put him in a straight jacket.


Krissy  Clark:Keith’s arrest, his trial, his sentencing, they got national media attention because of the crazy circumstances that happen to surround Keith’s case, the bizarre story behind Bush’s baggie of crack speech, the set-up. But what might be more important about Keith Jackson’s story are the ordinary parts.


Krissy  Clark:A young man of color, from a poor neighborhood was convicted of a non-violent, low-level drug offense. He was put in prison for a long time. He was put there because of things like mandatory minimums and of zero tolerance policy towards drugs that focused on law enforcement. Here are some numbers to consider. Since, 1986 when Congress established mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, the number of people in federal prison has almost quadrupled. I should point out that federal prison is just a small slice of the overall US prison population, but when it comes to federal prison, nearly half of all inmates are in for drug crimes and about 75% of them are black or Hispanic.


Krissy  Clark:The most common charges in federal prisons these days are for low-level sales. A report from a few years ago by the US department of Justice found that in 2012, the majority of people who were in federal prison for crack like, Keith Jackson got at least 10 years in prison.


Krissy  Clark:Tracy Thompson says covering the federal courts 30 years ago during Keith Jackson’s trial when these even tougher on drugs policies had only recently been put in place, you could just start to see the shape of things to come.


Tracy Thompson:At that time, they were just funneling a million of these things through the federal courts. You weren’t hearing about these cases in terms of, here’s somebody who got caught with a little bitty bag of crack, something the size of your left molar, they went to prison for 10 years and if we keep this up, we’re going to put a generation of young, black men in prison.


Krissy  Clark:Keith Jackson was released from prison in 1998. I spent months trying to reach him to see what’s happened since. I tried old numbers, I sent him letters, eventually I did talk to some of his family, found out he has a job in an office, but that was about it. Then Keith called me one night to say he didn’t want to be interviewed. He wants to move on with his life. Understandable.


Krissy  Clark:But there are so many Keith Jacksons out there, or I should say, in there. So many young men of color charged with low-level drug sales and put behind bars for a very long time.


David McGrueder:Do you guys just want to bow your heads. Oh, gracious and merciful lord, we thank you for this day, for this gathering, for this mini reunion of Spingarn family and friends. Lord, now we ask that you would bless this food, give us all [crosstalk 00:39:07]-


Krissy  Clark:At the mini reunion of students and teachers of Spingarn High School, where Keith Jackson went, people bowed their heads and said grace before they dug into the potluck. Everyone I talked to over the turkey burgers and deviled eggs had a story about how a zero tolerance drug policies and mandatory minimum sentences had affected them. One form it takes is in the people that are missing from their reunions and mini reunions. Keith Jackson and lots of others.


David McGrueder:It was typical to see someone in our neighborhood and then the next week you’re like, “Hey, what happened to such and such?”


Krissy  Clark:That’s David McGrueder again, Keith Jackson’s classmate on the basketball team. He says when someone disappeared, odds were good they’d gone to prison. A study of police records in DC from the late ’80s showed that about 20% of young black men in the district, ages 18-22 had been charged with a drug crime. Carrie Bridges remembers that suddenly people were getting serious prison time for those crimes.


Carrie Bridges:We were like, where’s this coming from?


Krissy  Clark:Carries says when she found out her classmate, Keith Jackson had gotten 10 years in prison, she felt like he was a scapegoat in the war on drugs.


Carrie Bridges:Poor Keith, he was still a kid and you pretty much ruined his life. Was it worth it? Was it worth it?


Leroy Lewis:The war on drugs was never really the war on drugs. It was the war on us.


Krissy  Clark:That’s Leroy Lewis. He taught government and journalism when Keith Jackson was a student at Spingarn High School.


Leroy Lewis:That’s how many people felt during the Bush speech and during his little drama with the bag of crack and even with the arrest of Keith Jackson, it was just a betrayal and it was just a signal, look out, we’re coming after you and we’re coming in your communities and we’re going to just decimate you.


Krissy  Clark:The first time I talked to Leroy, I mentioned that I was also going to be talking to some of the men who worked in the Bush administration, who’d worked on the baggie of crack speech that Keith Jackson indirectly got caught up in. In fact, I was going to be talking to one of them later that day.


Krissy  Clark:Just wondering, is there anything you’d like me to ask him on your behalf?


Leroy Lewis:Maybe you should ask, how fair did he think that that situation was to Keith Jackson and to all of the other young people that were directly affected negatively by the consequences by what the president did and said?


Krissy  Clark:I put that question to Bush’s speech writer, Mark Davis. He’s the guy who came up with the idea of using the baggie of crack as a prop. I was talking actually to a former teacher of Keith Jackson’s. He was angry with you, with the speech writers who began all of this and he said, “You guys were part of the problem,” and he wanted to ask you how fair do you think that situation was to someone like Keith Jackson?


Mark Davis:Well I don’t think it was fair at all and it wasn’t the situation that the speech writers envisioned, but I do agree. We do have to question, doing what we’re doing, we’ve done it for three decades now and it’s not working.


Krissy  Clark:But other people from the Bush administration see it differently. Edward McNally worked on the baggie of crack speech too. He says, “Yes, mandatory minimums led to unfair sentences for some people.” But he made this analogy between the war on drugs and other kinds of wars.


Edward McNally:I don’t think there’s been a war yet where we’ve been able to avoid any Americans dying from friendly fire. It’s a really tragic, unacceptable and unwelcome reality. I don’t think collateral damage is acceptable-


Krissy  Clark:But maybe unavoidable, it sounds like you’re saying.


Edward McNally:That may be a reality as well.


Krissy  Clark:But if Keith Jackson and potentially hundreds of thousands of others became as Ed McNally called it, collateral damage, caught by friendly fire in the war on drugs, Ed also wanted to make sure to point out in his mind, it wasn’t all in vain.


Krissy  Clark:He reminded me of how bad things were when crack was at its height.


Edward McNally:It destroyed whole communities. It was block after block and whole neighborhoods taken over by corrupt crack gangs.


Krissy  Clark:A lot of those realities have changed Ed told me and he credits the kinds of tough on drugs crime policies that came out of the Bush administration he worked for.


Edward McNally:There are many key elements of the so-called war on drugs that were successful in bringing about that result.


Krissy  Clark:Things have gotten better when it comes to crack and the violence that surrounded it, but the real question, right, is whether the war on drugs, the steep sentences, the tougher punishments, whether that was what made things better? Turns out, there’s no good evidence showing that it did.


Edward McNally:There’s no evidence. Take away good, there’s no evidence.


Krissy  Clark:Peter Reuter is an economist and a Professor of Criminology at the University of Maryland and he explained to me law enforcement basically has two main goals when it comes to drugs. One is about morality, punishing people for doing things that we as a society see as bad, but the other goal of law enforcement, Peter says, is much more practical and economic and it all comes back to thinking about markets for drugs like any other kind of market, that is, ruled by the forces of supply and demand. Law enforcement, Peter says …


Peter Reuter:… is an effort to restrict supply.


Krissy  Clark:Constrict the supply of drugs to make drug prices go up because more expensive drugs should …


Peter Reuter:… presumably reduce demand. If the probability of getting arrested and going to prison goes up, then in the standard economic model, they’ll be some people who will decide not to sell drugs at the current price because the compensation they get is not worth that additional risk. That may lead to an increase in price …


Krissy  Clark:… and in its simplest form, this model seems to work. Just outlying any given drug does reduce its supply and increase its price, but Peter says as much as he loves the supply and demand theories that drive this model, there’s just not evidence to show that in the real world, stiffer and stiffer law enforcement or sentencing makes much more of a dent in reducing the drug supply or increasing the price.


Peter Reuter:I have used this model over a very long career and I would very much like it if there was some evidence that it was correct. In fact, what is striking is how little evidence there is for it.


Krissy  Clark:And in fact, there’s some very striking evidence against this model. The drug policy researchers have been banging their heads against for the last few years, namely that if you look at the ’80s and ’90s when the war on drugs was ramping up and dealers were more likely to get locked up, the price of crack was falling. More intense law enforcement did not seem to deter people from selling or using drugs.


Krissy  Clark:Peter has a lot of theories about why that might be. For one …


Peter Reuter:Drug sellers are very poorly informed about the sentences they face.


Krissy  Clark:Or as Don Schotz, the Spingarn grad who used to sell drugs put it to me …


Don Schotz:When you’re out there doing crimes, you don’t look at, “Oh, I might get a lot of time if I sell these rocks.” People wasn’t looking at that because it’s like, everybody thinking they’ll never get caught. Nobody going to study the law and say, “Okay, okay, I’m going to look up this crime and see how much it carries if I do this.” Nobody does that, you know?


Krissy  Clark:So if tougher and tougher laws don’t work, what does? I asked Peter Reuter that question.


Peter Reuter:Well, I’m going to sound as pedestrian as a public health person, but I believe that we can by expanding and improving treatment, substantially reduce the demand for the drugs that cause us the most problem, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine. Treatment even, not very good treatment, which is the treatment that’s generally available, makes a difference. We can manage this problem, which is all we ever do with social problems. We can manage this problem better by focusing on the demand side.


Krissy  Clark:It occurred to me that this is pretty much what Carrie Bridges, Keith Jackson’s classmate, whose family struggled with crack, has been thinking all their life about how to handle drug epidemics.


Carrie Bridges:My focus was never to be on the people that are selling drugs. The focus should have been on the people that were using because if there’s no demand, there’s no need to supply. So it was always more, we need to do whatever we need to do to get people off of drugs.


Krissy  Clark:And Carries says for people like her mom and her uncle, there weren’t many options.


Carrie Bridges:There wasn’t any, we’re going to send you away to rehab, and you can go to California and stay at this luxury place where they’ll teach you how to meditate. No, they didn’t have that.


Krissy  Clark:She compares that to the way she hears people talk about the opioid crisis now.


Carrie Bridges:They’re addicted and it’s a disease and we need to get them some help. Okay, but we didn’t need to get them any help years ago? Okay, I was just wondering. So, as a black woman of these United States, what were you doing like 20, 30 years ago when it was a problem then, but it wasn’t a problem because they couldn’t identify. It wasn’t until it stretched over different demographics, a different socio-economic class and then it became a problem, but it’s always been a problem. Right now, we’re like, “Oh, that’s been a problem. You’re new to this, we’re not.”


Krissy  Clark:Helping drug users rather than locking up small time dealers, these are lessons about how to deal with a drug epidemic that someone like Carrie Bridges has come to know in her bones, after she watched so many of her peers, her friends and family turn into the collateral damage of the war on drugs. They’re conclusions that drug researchers like, Peter Reuter have come to after studying the data for over 30 years. But it’s still worth asking whether we, as a country have really learned anything from the war on crack? What’s changed and what hasn’t as we deal with a new drug epidemic, the biggest one we’ve ever faced.


Al Letson:Thanks to Krissy Clark and the whole team at The Uncertain Hour from Marketplace for bringing us today’s show. Be sure to subscribe to their podcast to hear how they tackle the opioid epidemic.


Al Letson:We also want to tell you about a new podcast from Marketplace called, This is Uncomfortable. They dive into life and how money messes with it. You can subscribe to This is Uncomfortable wherever you get your podcasts. Check it out.


Al Letson:Today’s show was produced by Krissy Clark and Caitlin Esch, along with Associate Producer, Peter Balonon-Rosen. We had help from Lyra Smith, Production Assistant, Annie Rees and Digital Producer, Tony Wagner. Catherine Winter edited the show. Special thanks to Marketplace’s Nancy Farghalli, Sitara Nieves and Deborah Clark.


Al Letson:Our Production Manager is Najib Aminy. Mixing and sound design from Jake Gorsky, with an assist from Reveal sound design team, Jay [Breezy 00:50:59], Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor in Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is [Commerado, lightning 00:51:10].


Al Letson:Support for Reveal’s provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation. The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.


Al Letson:Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.


Kevin Sullivan is a former executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Fernanda Camarena is a bilingual reporter-producer for Reveal. She is a 10-year TV news veteran, most recently as a national correspondent for Telemundo Network's prime-time newscast, Noticiero Telemundo. A native of Juarez, Mexico, her reporting has taken her around the U.S. and into Mexico to cover everything from politics and immigration to social issues. She has been nominated for two Emmy Awards, and her investigative projects include "Las Hijas Perdidas de Juarez," which examined unsolved female murders in Juarez, and "Feria de Ilusiones," a report on the struggles of U.S. carnival workers from Tlapacoyan, Mexico. She also has worked for Univision, Televisa and as contributor for "60 Minutes" on CBS. Camarena is based in New York City.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Kaitlin Benz is the production assistant for Reveal. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Metropolitan State University of Denver and a master’s degree in audio journalism from UC Berkeley. She’s previously worked at CBS Interactive and Mission Local and as a freelance audio producer. Her favorite things are houseplants and housecats. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.