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Lawrence Harmon

Crack cocaine left scars on Boston

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / April 17, 2011

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CLASS REUNIONS, family reunions, army-buddy reunions, and even Jersey Shore reunions sprout in the spring. But along comes one for the ages — Boston’s 25th anniversary crack cocaine reunion at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury where former users, sellers, crack orphans, law enforcement officials, and health workers shared memories of their time spent and misspent together.

Most reunions are bittersweet. This one was mostly bitter. The introduction of crack cocaine to Boston in the mid-1980s and its spread during the ’90s constricted the city’s blood vessels. Gang wars erupted, neighborhoods collapsed, and legitimate businesses hit the skids. The city saw a record 152 homicides in 1990. Parents by the hundreds embraced their crack pipes and walked out on their children. And all in the name of a small, smokable rock that delivers a high more cheaply and intensely than powder cocaine.

The reunion last Sunday was called “25 Years After Crack: A Retrospective Discussion and Symposium on the Effect of Crack Cocaine on Boston’s Black Community and Families.’’ It was the brainchild of George “Chip’’ Greenidge, who heads a civic initiative called Greatest Minds. He’s part of a new generation of black leaders in Boston who don’t shy away from controversy, especially if it serves to increase engagement by residents in the city’s minority neighborhoods.

Dozens of 20- and 30-somethings at the reunion looked back at lives turned upside down in the 1980s by a drug they never touched. They have vivid childhood memories of mothers, aunts, and uncles selling crack to each other and using it openly at home. One 32-year-old man recalls asking himself, “Who are these people?’’ Jerry Hall, 29, recalled the pain of hearing his father refer to crack as his “love child.’’ The recollections evolved into a discussion about whether their generation’s struggle with joblessness is an extension of their parent’s illicit drug use.

Others had hazy memories of cousins, uncles, and aunts who dropped out of sight during the crack epidemic. Are they alive or dead? It was eerily similar to hearing accounts of the “disappeared’’ in far-away military dictatorships.

A group of older adults discussed their feelings of helplessness at the time. “I apologize for my generation dropping the ball,’’ one shouted across the room.

The experience also left deep scars on those who had to clean up the crack mess.

Fulani Haynes was a nurse at Boston City Hospital during the crack epidemic. She described attempts to care for babies who were born addicted to or injured by illicit drugs that passed from a mother’s bloodstream through the placenta and into a tiny body. The babies couldn’t tolerate being held or rocked, she recalled. They wailed at the sound of soft lullabies. Only complete darkness, silence, tight swaddling, and medication could soothe them.

“The nurses would be the mothers, while the mothers were getting high,’’ she said.

Even police and prosecutors seemed shell-shocked. Deputy Superintendent William Gross, who heads the Boston Police gang unit, joined the force just in time for the crack epidemic and was stunned by what was happening in his native Dorchester. “Back then, killing the competition meant killing the competition,’’ said Gross.

Sometimes, it was the smallest fish who paid the biggest prices. Former federal prosecutor Natashia Tidwell choked up recalling a “borderline mentally retarded’’ suspect who received a 15-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few rocks of cocaine. She refused to prosecute drug cases after that. Other attendees lashed out at the sentencing disparities that punished crack offenses more heavily than crimes involving powder cocaine. But it was more a day for purgation than policy discussions.

Former street dealers countered the common view that they sold mainly to support their own drug use. “We looked down on the people who got high,’’ said Carl McLaren, 39, who started selling small amounts as a teenager and moved up to trafficking. “I never thought about doing time or screwing up the community,’’ said McLaren, who acknowledges he did both. “It’s cleansing,’’ he said of the reunion.

Anthony Lewis, another former dealer, said he started selling crack at age 12 and was making $3,000 a week by the time he was 15 or 16.

“I didn’t save a dime,’’ he said.

Crack use has been on the wane in Boston for more than a decade. But reunion organizer Greenidge deserves a lot of credit for showing its ongoing effects on the city’s central nervous system. For a drug designed to stimulate the pleasure system, it caused — and continues to cause — massive pain.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.