Crack Smoking Aside ...

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has repeatedly demonstrated bigotry and incompetence. Outrage over a powerful white man using crack cocaine, though, says more about society's fixation with the drug than it says about him.
(Felipe Dana/AP, Jae C. Hong/AP)

"Crack-smoking aside" is a lurid clause. It can feel a little like, "Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoked crack. Therefore he is unfit to rule. What's left to discuss?

Yesterday after Ford finally admitted to having used crack cocaine "in one of [his] drunken stupors"—a winsome choice of words—my colleague Matt O'Brien asked Twitter, earnestly, "Has Rob Ford been a bad mayor, crack smoking aside?"

A compelling case can readily be made that the answer is yes. The fact that it takes crack cocaine to call attention to it is interesting.

"Let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap," Whitney Houston famously defended herself to Diane Sawyer in 2002. "I make too much money to ever smoke crack."

"Crack," she said, "is wack."

And it is still discernibly wack. The notion is also a punch line. Rhetorically at least, it's a casual dismissal of crazy ("Are you on crack?"). Not powder cocaine so much, but crack. In the last season of Girls, the bellwether of modern culture, Lena Dunham's character Hannah did coke in a nightclub, became endearingly manic, and danced around in a transparent tank top. In another episode, her friend Shoshanna accidentally tried crack cocaine and ran through the streets of Greenpoint freaking out at realizing it—the gag was the premise, the juxtaposition of a prim white girl trying crack.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
Ford during a city council meeting in May 2013, when the crack-video allegations broke (AP)

Crack cocaine, though, is powder cocaine minus one hydrochloride molecule. That gives crack a lower melting point. It can be smoked, offering a more potent high. Chemically there's not much difference, in that both are very addictive and can ruin lives, though most who experiment are not ruined. The more pertinent differences are psychosocial and historic. There are deep-seated notions about who's expected to use them and who's not. The powder means Hollywood, and the rocks mean ghetto. (Today both are everywhere.)

How many elected officials have at some point snorted cocaine? How does it affect their public perception to own up? Barack Obama did. Around twenty percent of Americans have tried cocaine. Still, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is now "Toronto's crack-smoking Mayor Rob Ford." Media reported the story with incredulity that he did not plan to resign. Ford has done several things by which his tenure might be defined, or over which one might call for his resignation, but the crack legacy seems most likely to endure.

For example, Judd Legum at ThinkProgress noted that Ford spoke out against funding for HIV/AIDS because “if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably.” Ford has also been accused of using racial slurs toward his Italian Canadian colleagues and "those Oriental people [who] work like dogs slowly taking over." He once suggested, instead of having a "public meeting" about a homeless shelter, "Why don't we have a public lynching?" He solicited money from lobbyists for his personal charity on city letterhead. Last night Chris Hayes noted that Ford "privatized half of the garbage pickup and took away the right of transit workers to strike." He has also championed a strangely anachronistic war on bikes. ("Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes.")

There is sympathy to be had for anyone with substance abuse issues. Ford's excuse—drunken stupor—is only further in line with his everyman persona. Who hasn't heard that rationale from a friend over asinine behavior? I was drunk and did something otherwise inexcusable, but, again, I was drunk, so it's actually innocuous. That Ford deceptively denied the allegations for months, and that he admits to regularly drinking to the point of incapacity are redder flags than the crack itself. Also, the AIDS thing. Don't dismiss "crack smoking aside."

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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