The Needle and the Damage Done

As an ex-cop, an ex-cokehead, and an ex-con—and as a mother trying to build a safe future for my two young sons—I’ve seen the drug war from every conceivable side. And I know why we aren’t winning.

I HELD A CRACK BABY ONCE, but not while I was an undercover narcotics agent in East Texas in the seventies. It was in 1983, after I had gotten out of prison and fled to New York City, while I was maintaining asylum in the ivory towers of graduate school. My fourth-floor walk-up was in a mostly Dominican neighborhood near Columbia University, where there was enough crack to go around—and then some.

Late one afternoon, the crack baby’s sister brought him down the hall and knocked on my door. “My mother’s gone out, and I’m scared,” she said. She was only nine or ten, with perfectly braided hair and little plastic barrettes in the shape of bows. I’d seen her double-dutch a time or two. She had wide eyes and a great smile. She stepped inside carefully, as though she was awed to be in a white woman’s apartment. After we sat on the couch, she asked, “Do you want to take him?”

I hadn’t held many babies back then. He was an infant, new to the world, his eyes still unfocused. I was surprised at how little he weighed. He was squirmy and uncomfortable, and his sister knew it: She had sensed that he wasn’t happy, and it scared her. She thought she was doing something wrong or at least not doing something right. It was in the movement of his head that I noticed something akin to a shudder. It wasn’t obvious, but it was there. He needed something. He needed crack cocaine.

His mother was given to disappearing for days or weeks at a time, and one time after she’d been gone awhile, I came home from class to see her standing on the stoop, leaning against the wall, sucking on a crack pipe. She was showing, and the shock of it hit me in the gut, along with a feeling that I should do something. I told myself that it was none of my business. What was I going to do: walk up to a bunch of crackheads, single her out, and say, “Uh, excuse me, you shouldn’t be doing that while you’re pregnant”?

I wished two things. I wished that I hadn’t even seen her, but it was a day so pleasant even the junkies wanted to come outside. And then I wished that there was no law against crack. I wished that instead of scoring it on the street, she could have gone to a facility where addicts get their daily dose, where a social worker could have sat with her and said, “You may be hurting your unborn baby, and I know you don’t really want to do that. Let me send you somewhere where they can help you overcome your addiction.” Surely that wouldn’t cost any more than putting her in prison, leaving her daughter without a mother and the taxpayers with another $35,000 or so in the debit column.

I held the baby for only a short time before his mother knocked on the door. She had a bag of groceries and didn’t appear high. She gave her daughter a stern look and apologized to me.

A few weeks later, the mother came over and borrowed $5—for formula, she said. I gave it to her, hoping she was telling the truth. A few weeks after that she handed me a worn $5 bill and thanked me. The bill was so used it felt as limp as cloth. In that neighborhood even the money was worn out. I tucked it in my pocket, my conscience a bit less uneasy. Maybe she really had bought formula. But even if she hadn’t, I could understand it. I knew what it was like. I knew what addiction was like.

IN THE SEVENTIES, WHEN THE WAR ON drugs had just been declared, I enlisted. After two years as a patrol officer and a detective in Plano, I was asked to be part of a long-term street-level narcotics investigation in East Texas. For a young cop, the chance was too good to pass up, so I took on a new identity and spent months undercover, buying dope of all kinds. That was my job.

During that time, I was introduced to, as they say, Mr. Jones—monster addiction, all-powerful need. I’ve heard it said that back in the fifties, the few members of the Department of Public Safety’s Narcotics Section would gather once a year, divide up their budget, and then fan out across the state to their territories, where they had free reign. Whatever they did—legal or otherwise—they did in the name of the law. Two decades later, so did I.

Maybe I would have encountered cocaine eventually. Most everyone in my generation seemed to have tried it. But I’d never even seen it until I became an undercover cop, when I was taught how to use it so that I could do the job of buying drugs on the street—even though it was illegal. Only three kinds of people buy at that level: users, addicts, and undercover cops. So if you’re selling, one way to assure yourself that you’re not selling to the heat is to watch the buyer snort it, shoot it, smoke it—whatever.

It took me only about six weeks to get hooked. I remember a Sunday in the spring of 1979, just a few months after I went undercover. I woke up and reached into the dresser drawer next to my bed to retrieve the mirror. I sniffed a couple of lines of cocaine, that party drug, the one that medical authorities said wasn’t physically addictive. I pulled on some jeans and a shirt and slipped through the living room, where my partner was snoring on the couch. His left arm protruded from beneath a blanket. Heavy-duty tracks bulged the veins on his forearm. I didn’t have a clue what he was on: Dilaudid, heroin, speedballs. It could have been anything. He’d been a narc since the sixties.

I empathized. If I looked

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