How the Crack Era Waged War on Drug-Addicted Mothers

Stanley Nelson’s Netflix documentary opened my eyes to how much Black and Hispanic women were preyed on by the American government

If you haven’t seen Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy on Netflix, you’re missing out on the most powerful documentary of this new year. Stanley Nelson’s film does a masterful job of contextualizing the crack era of the ’80s by highlighting both its roots and branches — from the White House to inner-city street corners. Much of the information Nelson doles out isn’t new. It’s widely known that the crack-cocaine epidemic was the brainchild of then-President Ronald Reagan to keep alive some ego-driven loyalty to Nicaraguan drug dealers. I knew it was supported by both Republicans and Democrats. And that Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was a joke.

Where the documentary exposed my ignorance was the extent to which mothers were targeted within America’s war on narcotics, which essentially was a siege against poor minorities. I know all too well the perils of crack use. I saw it destroy families and futures, erode human beings. Little is sadder than a woman who can’t carry out her maternal role because she’s incarcerated by addiction. At the height of the crack epidemic, America put a hit out on both dealer and user. Neither new mothers nor addicts who were pregnant were spared.

The focal figure in this part of Crack was Shirley Brown, a manager for high-risk obstetrics cases at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Brown is seen on camera querying a pregnant woman on whether or not she uses drugs. The tragedy was that once these mothers admitted to using narcotics, or tested positive for them, they would be arrested mere hours after giving birth. This after their newborn was taken away.

Why were these new mothers treated like criminals? Why were some hauled off in handcuffs and forced to sit in jail without sanitary napkins? Their crime had less to do with the consumption of drugs and more a draconian definition of “distribution.” According to the government, the moment the baby was conceived, the mother became guilty of child neglect and intravenously giving drugs to a minor. This ignited a firestorm of fetal rights arguments and ethical-medical debates. Moreover, it solidified the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) as a prosecution conduit within a war on drugs that targeted the majority of the hospital’s patient population: poor Blacks.

While the documentary fingers MUSC and Brown as the villains behind this atrocity, the whole truth reveals more players and factors than meets the eye. First, Brown did not act alone. She worked in conjunction with her supervisor, Dr. Edgar Horger III, the head of fetal-maternal medicine at the hospital. Horger possessed the final authority on crossing the medical line over to judicial. According to Brown, the tandem’s driving purpose was always protecting the babies.

Possibly, the biggest myth buster provided by ‘Crack’ was that the crack baby was fictitious. There was a fear that these Black and Brown crack babies would grow up mentally challenged and ultimately end up joining their mothers in the penal system.

Horger and Brown’s crusade began in 1988 after the hospital noticed a rising number of women suffering from abruptio placentae — an abrupt separation from the placenta before labor. Perplexed, they sought out the latest medical publishings on the condition. Cocaine consistently popped up as a factor, so the doctors began testing pregnant patients for narcotics. According to Brown, within the first year, over 100 pregnant women tested positive for cocaine. She also claims that before any authorities got involved, she urged her patients to seek treatment at the Charleston County Substance Abuse Commission, involving the feds only after nearly every addicted mother refused treatment.

Brown does not appear this sisterly in the documentary. The way she asked the aforementioned patient about her drug use felt like entrapment—and her lack of transparency makes for a disconcerting watch. When the anonymous patient directly asks Brown her intentions with the information, Brown’s answer omits the fact that the data could potentially incriminate the mother. That Brown and her superior were actively aiming to have these mothers thrown in jail may be a stretch, but what’s clear is that the hospital crossed a line that it couldn’t walk back. Once Brown informed Charleston’s youngest elected prosecutor, Charles Condone, of their patient problem, he essentially accused the hospital of harboring criminals and ordered that all cases from then on be reported to the police. This was 1989.

The most disgusting part of it all is that the rationale that Horger, Brown, and Condone destroyed the lives of addicted women to protect the babies. How does a newborn benefit from being kept from their mother? How is a child better off in foster care or with their parent incarcerated? But the narrative was cemented: The judiciary process was to quell the influx of new “crack babies.”

The term has been a part of the American vernacular for decades. It’s been heard in our movies, our news broadcasts, and in the streets in the form of insult. Possibly, the biggest myth buster provided by Crack was that the crack baby was fictitious. There were certainly examples of babies who had born with drugs in their system showing side effects like irritability and strained cardiovascular function. Yet, the picture painted to society was premature infants twitching from cocaine rushes. Moreover, there was a fear that these Black and Brown crack babies would grow up mentally challenged and ultimately join their mothers in the penal system.

The truth is, evidence that babies born with narcotics in their system harbor long-lasting effects is consistently inconclusive. In the documentary, historian Elizabeth Hinton states that during the crack era, the amount of children born with cocaine in their system was less than 5%. That means that the women arrested 30 years ago for cocaine distribution and child neglect were done so unjustly, their lives marred or ruined unnecessarily. Since then, the appellate courts have overturned hundreds of cases charging women for committing crimes through childbirth.

The hypocrisy is astounding. After all, America’s crack epidemic was created by the American government. Instead of being transparent with its citizens and taking responsibility, it instead deflected the blame onto those with the least political power and resources. Even more disgusting, the country predatorily hunted women — minority women at their weakest and sickest point. Today, pregnant White women addicted to opioids receive empathy and addiction counselors. Thirty years ago, Black women held tight by crack cocaine got handcuffs and a reminder that there is no body that the United States hates more than a Black one.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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