A funny thing happened during the
tabloid feeding frenzy surrounding reports of former NBA star Lamar Odom's crack use: Some actual news broke out. Polina Polonsky, a model-hot criminal-defense lawyer, coyly answered questions from TMZ host Harvey Levin about her account of Odom's smoking crack.
Polonsky, you see, had been keeping up with the Keeping Up With the Kardashians costar (Khloe's hubby) at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, whose lobby bar and pool are booze-drenched party spots for celebs, agents, and junior studio execs on the make. When Polonsky said of Odom's crack use, "I can't say [it was] necessarily out of control," Levin seemed astonished. "It sounds like what you're saying is there is such a thing as controlled crack use," he said. Polonsky quickly added, "I think there's tons of people who do it recreationally, and that doesn't necessarily make them addicts."
Crack may be one of the most addictive substances on earth—as the indelible images of crack babies supposedly born hooked drove home in the 1980s. But there are growing indications that some smokers can handle their shit. And just as onetime crack dens have been transformed into high-end real estate, the glass pipe, too, has been gentrified. Clouds of crack smoke are now wafting from upscale lofts on the Bowery and West Hollywood hotel rooms and from bungalows in Venice Beach and converted warehouses in Bushwick.
The HBO comedy Girls got it exactly right. In one episode, über-uptight Shoshanna accidently smokes crack at a Brooklyn warehouse party, thinking the pipe she is casually passed contains weed. Hilarious, yes, but not ludicrous. Drugs follow money. And they follow young, edgy creative-hipster types eager to go through some kind of dark, skid-row rite of passage. Yesterday's scourge of the underclass is today's indulgence of the idle class.
"There's a stigma to crack that excites certain people," says one 36-year-old fashion photographer who works on New York's Lower East Side. He says he knows "tons of people" in fashion, music, and art who either have smoked rock or would be willing to try it as long as "someone else in the room has it and knows what they are doing."
I randomly saw this play out on an autumn Sunday night in New York City's East Village. At a hip dive bar, I met Neil, an Internet executive, and his friend Keith, who works in the financial industry (both asked that their full names be withheld). When they rolled out of the bar at around 1:30 A.M., after an evening punctuated by blow and Adderall, Keith suggested they cap the night with crack. Neil bought four tiny blue Baggies, each containing a one-hit rock, for $10 a pop from a kid on a bike, then picked up a $3 glass stem from a corner deli. He and Keith started smoking their crack in the taxi on their way home to the industrial-chic Gowanus section of Brooklyn. "It's like coke times 100," said Keith, letting out an acrid belch of smoke.
More than an intense new nightcap, crack serves, rehab experts attest, as a résumé-builder for the in-crowd. The incredibly powerful high is a draw, of course, but so is the fact that its name is synonymous with addiction and lets a user feel a deep and dangerous connection to balls-out substance abusers like William S. Burroughs and Sid Vicious.
But it doesn't—contrary to our collective gasps—automatically turn you into a crackhead. In fact, up to 4 out of 5 people who try it don't get addicted. A 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 76 percent of people who tried crack between 2004 and 2006 had stopped using it altogether two years later. Another 15 percent said they still smoked from time to time. The remaining 9 percent, sad to say, were actual addicts.
"If you love it, and if you're not a pussy, you will be smoking thousands of dollars' worth in a month," says former crackhead Richard Taite, who used to smoke the rock with lawyers and celebrity progeny in Bel Air and now runs the Cliffside Malibu rehab facility. On the other hand, some people have stronger wills, says Tom Horvath, founder of Practical Recovery in Los Angeles, who includes moderation among his recovery tools. "If you have your life together and are seeking experiences, why shouldn't it be possible to do it moderately?" he says.
That's not to suggest that crack addiction isn't real and tragic—it is. But as the saying goes, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, and well-heeled kids born in, say, 1986, like Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls, have only a hazy idea of the crack epidemic, which destroyed the lives of thousands of people—most of them poor. A drug's connotations fundamentally change when it's appropriated by pop-cultural figures either for laughs or to burnish their bad-boy credentials, as British rocker Pete Doherty did by hitting the glass pipe in a magazine spread in 2004. The next year, The Sun reported that his then-girlfriend, Kate Moss, was a "regular user of deadly CRACK cocaine"—rehab soon followed for the supermodel.
More recently, celebrities have rationalized hitting the rock. After George Michael was busted for it in London in 2008, he suggested to The Guardian that there was nothing wrong with dabbling. "People want to see me as tragic with all the . . . drug taking," he said. "I don't even see them as weaknesses anymore. It's just who I am." Charlie Sheen said he liked getting high, but he advised people to "stay away from the crack . . . which I think is pretty good advice. . . . If you can manage it socially, then go for it, but not a lot of people can, you know?" Right, it's only for the alphas.
Truth be told, in terms of the population at large, not a lot of people are trying crack. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of first-time users declined from 337,000 in 2002 to 76,000. Of the 22.5 million Americans who use illicit drugs, only 625,000 smoke crack. It's not the statistics that are striking; it's what they represent.
"We know there are lots of Wall Street dudes smoking crack, no question," says Joe Schrank, cofounder of the treatment program Rebound Brooklyn. "We see financial guys, artists, tech geeks, people with money or pedigree and good families, anyone who wants to try something a bit stronger than what they're already doing."
In other words, crack is neither the end of the line nor a gateway drug. It finds you because you're already at a party doing a bump of coke and someone comes up and says, "Hey, you like that? Then you gotta try this." "It's a script that gets followed every time," says Scott Bienenfeld, M.D., an addiction expert at Rebound Brooklyn. "No one ever says, 'Try this, it's weaker.' It's always, 'Hey, supersize me.'"
Recently-shamed Toronto mayor Rob Ford admits to smoking crack at press conference.