The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America’s Crack Epidemic
25 years ago, crack use was exploding across America. Cheap and readily accessible, the drug’s place in the national folklore was assured when President George H. W. Bush brandished a bag of crack rocks in an address from the Oval Office in 1989, opining: “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battlezones, and it’s murdering our children.”
About four months later, Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was busted by the feds. They caught him (on tape) smoking crack in a hotel room—where he famously muttered “Bitch set me up!” in reference to the former girlfriend who cooperated with the FBI to bring him down. That same night, Ruben Castaneda, a recently-hired crime reporter for the Washington Post who was lucky enough to be on the scene at the Vista Hotel, got high on crack in a room paid for by the newspaper. He was an addict, and with his blood racing from having seen the most popular politician in the city go down—and no one at the hotel giving up any dirt on the bust he could use for a story—the temptation was too great to resist.
Before his Post editors helped him get clean and kick the habit, Castaneda led a complicated existence—reporting stories on one hand and surreptitiously scoring crack on the other. His new book about those years, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, recalls David Simon’s beloved HBO show The Wire with its vivid, textured portrait of urban life and territorial gang warfare. The key difference, as Castaneda likes to point out, is that it’s all true (even if Simon’s own time as a crime reporter gave his show plenty of realism).
I called Castaneda up to ask him about experiencing the crack epidemic first hand, and how he pulled off such an incredible double life.
VICE: You were a reporter in your hometown of LA at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before being hired by the Post. Do you remember when you first heard about crack cocaine?
Ruben Castaneda: It’s hard to pinpoint, but I probably read an article in the LA Times or the New York Times about the impact crack was having in DC and in other cities around 1987 or 1988. Basically, that it was this incredibly powerful, addictive drug that was being sold in some of the tougher neighborhoods in the cities.
Tell me about your first experience with crack and what you think brought you to the drug.
I was on a reporting assignment on the western edge of downtown LA in a pretty tough neighborhood. This very, very attractive young woman caught my eye. She gestured for me to come over, so I put the reporting aside for a moment and went over to flirt with her. Now, I was already, at this time, drinking heavily. In fact, I had already gotten pretty toasted that afternoon at Corky’s—a dive bar—so I was pretty impaired in judgment. So when she offered me, very quickly into our conversation, a hit of crack, I was 27—old enough to know better but young enough to feel invincible. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing something that I had read so much about. I’d read that crack cocaine produced this incredible high. In that moment, I dismissed any thoughts that this would throw me into addiction.
"Strawberry" was a term I hadn’t heard outside of rap lyrics before reading the book. Can you explain it to our readers?
A strawberry is a woman who trades sex for drugs. Crack usually, though I suppose it could be other drugs. I was introduced to crack by a young woman who turned out to be a strawberry—Raven—in Los Angeles. Getting a strawberry to make the buy for me very quickly became part of my addiction or compulsion. And it added to the excitement. At least initially, the sex was otherwordly. But there was another component to it in that by handing money to the strawberry—Raven in LA, Champagne or Carrie in DC—and letting them make the buy, I was insulating myself from any police activity. It was a way of protecting myself.
But by the last month or so, I didn’t even care about that. All I wanted was to get drugs—I made the buys directly. Didn’t care about strawberries, just needed more crack.
Sex was wrapped up in your crack use from the start, though. Did you have qualms about exploitation of these women working the street?
At the time that I was caught up in it, I did not reflect on that very much. The women who I was picking up for crack and sex seemed to be very much in control of their own destinies. We didn’t talk about our respective lives—these were transactional encounters. Now, later on, I did start to reflect on the fact that I was playing a role in their own addictions. I think it was June of 1991 when there was a story on the front-page of the Post about a group of women who had worked the streets. I saw a picture of a woman I had picked up to make crack buys for me. Up until that moment, I think I had mentally compartmentalized what I was doing as relatively benign.
Will smoking credit cards, a Lindsay LohanDVD, the Bible, kale, artificial sweetener, caffeine, and a Sarah Lawrence diploma get you high? We found out.
We Watched New York’s Sexiest Drug Princess Smoke Weird Shit
Photos by Amy Lombard. Wardrobe Courtesy of New York Vintage
Editor’s note: Don’t smoke any of this at home, folks—or anywhere else for that matter. Leave this stupidity to the professionals.
Disclaimer: New York’s sexiest drug princess would only let me watch her smoke weird shit if she could approve the final article. Below is the text approved by New York’s sexiest drug princess.
“I have enough paraphernalia to smoke anything in Manhattan.”
I’m sitting on a black couch in a bourgey apartment in Greenwich Village watching CrackDoubt, a cam girl I met at the Outback Steakhouse, smoke weird objects to see if she can get high on life. For the photos, CrackDoubt alternates between a few black couture dresses as Corinthian columns stand firm against the living-room walls and white curtains billow throughout the perimeter of the room. The apartment looks more like the set of a post–Tommy Mottola Mariah Carey music video than the place where a self-proclaimed “drug princess” might smoke objects like powdered caffeine and cash money.
The apartment’s tenant, a net artist from the art collective Art404, sits on the window sill, smoking a cigarette and staring at the Empire State Building. He encourages Amy and me to “never date in 3-D.” CrackDoubt agrees. “If you’re not on a cam site, [it costs] $2.99 a minute, my dude,” she says. “Sex work made me realize how valuable my time is.”
CrackDoubt flaunts her sex work but is touchy about her current and past drug habits. Although she has smoked crack once or twice and a crackhead recently stalked her in Grand Central Station, tweeting at her to ask whether she had any crack, she despises the terms “crackhead” and “drug addict.” Lest she be lumped in with the stigmas that these terms bring to mind, she asks me to call her a “drug princess.” “Drug duchess” and “drug mistress” are also acceptable. “I’m a heroine—with an e,” she says. “I’m a New York City drug fairy tale!”
CrackDoubt tells me that she started using drugs when she was 18. From age 20 to 25, she dealt with a heavy cocaine problem. “Cocaine brings out the ugliest side of people,” she says. She also tells me that she is now sober; however, when I point out that she tweets regularly about substances, she admits she has a unique definition of sobriety: “I’m far from clean, but I don’t wake up with withdrawls.” She worries about being labeled a drug addict because of her “fans” on Twitter who may think she glamorizes drug use. I’m not sure who these fans are (CrackDoubt has 3,324 Twitter followers), but one fan recently told her that she wasn’t really living her life if she didn’t die this year. (CrackDoubt is 27.)
CrackDoubt’s life seems to revolve around the internet, where she met the net artist. “He put me on his ‘artist Twitter list,’ which is a great honor, because what have I created?” she says. She also met her “stylist,” Lil Snow Crash, online. Lil Snow Crash is a homosexual with the voice of a banshee who eats gummy bears throughout the night. He wears LeBron James–branded baggy shorts and an oversize white T-shirt. Before CrackDoubt starts smoking weird objects, she and her friends pour orange juice and champagne into glass flutes and make a toast “to the internet!”
As she puts on her earrings, she says, “I just took my Adderall, so I can focus now.” It’s smoking time.
Tonight on VICE on HBO: Heroin Warfare, by Suroosh Alvi
Iran is an extremely challenging place for journalists to operate. Formal invitations, convoluted bureaucracy, and government-approved “minders” tracking your every movement make it one of the most difficult places to report from in the world. Even with legal permits we got detained and/or arrested almost daily.
VICE had been trying to get into this isolated country for seven years, and every time we got shut down with zero explanation. Last year, after hearing that Iran had a heroin epidemic on its hands—which every single Iranian we interviewed for the piece insisted was a direct consequence of America’s decade-plus occupation of Afghanistan—we gave it another shot.
This time our pitch to the Ministry of Culture was that we wanted to do a story about the widespread damage the opium and heroin trade has had on Iranian society. Finally, they agreed and invited us to come over. Our entire international crew was allowed inside, with the exception of our American cameramen, whom we had to replace with Iranian and Mexican nationals.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of the dope flowing out of Afghanistan passes through Iran before ending up in Europe, where it is sold at a street level. Along the way, a lot of it ends up in the arms of what the Iranian government estimates to be 2 million drug users. (The actual number is widely believed to be much higher.)
In the years leading up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had enforced a ban on opium-poppy cultivation, resulting in historically low levels of production. After the Taliban were toppled, the Afghan warlords who regained control of the country (many of whom were appointed by the Americans) resumed the stupidly lucrative farming of opium and poppy once again.
How Fake Celebrity Porn Destroyed One Guy’s Life and Saved Another from Suicide
I’m looking at an image of Jessica Alba. In it, her face looks just like it does in every red carpet photo you’ve ever seen of her, but her body looks a little unfamiliar: The most striking differences is that it doesn’t have any clothes covering it, and that it’s having some anal sex with a guy in a gold silk shirt.
This photo is, of course, a fake. As far back as I can remember, there’s been a big online demand for this particular brand of smut that involves stitching the heads of celebrities on to the bodies of porn stars.
Usually, the people who create the fakes—almost all of whom seem, understandably, to work under pseudonyms, such as “Lord Hollywood”, “Knight in the Wired,” and “Pirate Duck”—post their work to online forums, where it’s critiqued by fans and other fakers. Occasionally, fakers get into head-to-head “duels” with other forum users voting for the winner. Of course nobody with an internet connection actually pays for fake nudes of female celebrities, so the fakers practice their craft merely for forum kudos. Or, if you’re being more thoughtful about it, because it allows them to subvert Hollywood’s control over their fantasies—young starlets in low-cut tops, frolicking in bikini scenes, mounting motorcycles in short-shorts for no particular reason—and repackage them into something more risque for the gratification of both themselves and legions of enthusiastic wankers.
An Interview with the Woman Who Pays Drug Addicts to Get Sterilized
In 1989, Barbara Harris founded C.R.A.C.K, or Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, the program that would eventually be rebranded as Project Prevention, although it was never technically renamed.
What they do at Project Prevention is, according to Harris, “work to get drug addicts and alcoholics on long-term birth control so they don’t conceive while using.” How they get them on long-term birth control is, they pay them $300.
Since its inception Project Prevention has provided incentives that led to tubal ligations, contraceptive implants, and vasectomies for over 4,000 people in the US and the UK.
I set out to talk to Barbara about what it’s like to pay people to get sterilized, but during our phone call we got into the moral complexities of Project Prevention, and what it’s like to be the organization’s public face. I also asked her about her brother-in-law who smokes crack.
VICE: A question I’m sure you get asked all the time is, how do you usually respond when somebody calls you a eugenicist or a Nazi?
Barbara Harris: It doesn’t bother me. People come to us by choice. We don’t force anybody to do anything. And what we’re doing is preventing suffering and damage to innocent children, so it’s nothing compared to any of that. It doesn’t bother me, I’ve been called everything, it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause I know the motives behind what I’m doing and I know what the reasons are.
How is 2014 going for Project Prevention?
Well it’s going very well. In the very beginning when we first started the organization it was kind of taboo to work with us or talk with us, but it’s getting to the point now where people are just fed up.
And even those who oppose what we do, they don’t have a solution, they just want to yell: “You shouldn’t do it.” Just like those who stand out at the abortion clinics saying, “Don’t have an abortion.” If the women try not to have an abortion, would they raise their children? Probably not.
So, just for the record, you don’t consider yourself to be anti-abortion in any way?
I think that our organization doesn’t take a stand on that one way or another but we’re preventing abortions because the women that come through our program have had numerous abortions. They use abortions for birth control.
There’s No Such Thing As Selfie Addiction
Recently, the assembled hacks at the Sunday Mirror’s headquarters were deciding how best to cover the story of Danny Bowman, a teenager diagnosed with “selfie addiction.” Taking the sensitive, appropriate route, the British tabloid sent a photographer to take lots and lots of photos of him.
Selfies are the latest trend in popular art—the cave paintings of the Age of Aquarius, only much less inspiring than anything our ancient ancestors ever produced. They combine two of the most potent forces in the modern world—computer technology and celebrity-fueled narcissism—to create a form of expression so powerful that it can literally cure cancer.
Nevertheless, with great power comes great danger, as anyone who’s watched the popular New Zealand hiking documentary Lord of the Rings will remember. In it, a ring becomes so powerful that a small man is forced to walk a very long way for reasons that are never made entirely clear before throwing the offending piece of jewellery into a volcano. Someone else becomes so corrupted by the ring’s power that he starts talking to himself, loses all his friends, and ends up developing a pretty nasty skin condition from the stress of it all.
But is it possible to be addicted to taking selfies, the way you can be addicted to alcohol or nicotine or the One Ring? The case of Danny Bowman is certainly extreme. According to the Sunday Mirror article, “He dropped out of school, didn’t leave his house in six months, lost two stone [28 pounds] trying to make himself look better for the camera, and became aggressive with his parents when they tried to stop him. Finally, in a drastic attempt to escape his obsession, Danny took an overdose—but was saved by his mum, Penny.”
I Do Drugs Because Doing Drugs Is Fun
Like any good British girl, I can sit and down pills till the hallucinatory cows come home. But if I have to read one more nonsense story about some celebrity checking into rehab after trying one bump of coke, I’m actually going to break into the Daily Mail’s headquarters and shit and piss on their computers so that they can’t print any more fucking shit and piss about people taking drugs.
The English actor Michael Le Vell had a tough time last year. He was suspended from the soap opera, Coronation Street, while on trial for child sex charges and has since been found not guilty. Recently, he was suspended again after he admitted to doing coke—as in the refreshing white stuff, not the syrup that rots babies if you pour it over them. Michael told the Sunday Mirror that he first tried coke during the stressful lead up to his trial, “For a few brief minutes, the first time was a relief from everything that was going on. Afterwards I felt so ashamed and I never thought I’d do it again. But I did it once more after the trial… I never thought that I was the sort of guy who would like cocaine.”
Seriously, how much bullshit was that statement cut with? I don’t know, maybe Michael “I never thought that I was the sort of guy who would like cocaine” Le Vell really does look down on people who take drugs. Maybe he’s just playing sad boy for the media. Who knows? We’re about as capable of knowing how much crap his statement contains as we are of knowing how much levamisole was in last weekend’s bag of sniff. (Answer: always far, far too much.)
I have no doubt that Michael—and other recent cocaine apologists, such as Nigella Lawson, Demi Lovato, and Jim Davidson—have felt pain in their lives, and that truly sucks. But are we really supposed to believe that people only do coke when they’re in mourning, or in abusive relationships, or on trial for child-sex charges? Could it be that some people do a fat line of coke simply because they love a fat line of coke?