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.
A Guide to Europe’s Secret Drug Capitals
If you’re not in Colorado or Washington, and you’ve ever spent more than $100 on weed at once, you’ve probably taken a relaxing vacation away from criminality in Amsterdam. That’s because smoking a joint legally in a beautiful European city, surrounded by both erudite Dutchmen and shit-drunk Scottish stag parties, is generally much more preferable to hot-boxing your friend’s car in a parking lot, slamming the music off and ducking behind the seats every time another car drives by.
But where are other Europeans supposed to go to snort, smoke or ingest in peace? Coke-heads used to have that Bolivian jail where you could buy fishscale direct from the prisoners, but that’s now banished to backpacker lore, ruined by swaths of international media attention and a warden who realized that presiding over a state-funded gak factory probably wouldn’t look great on his resume.
In 2013, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) conducted a study of 42 European cities, analyzing local waste-water (sewage, essentially) to determine which drug was most widely used in each area. Some of the results were as you’d expect, but there were a few in there that stuck out a little, and those are the ones we’ve laid out below in our guide to Europe’s secret drug capitals.
Photo via Jean-Pol Grandmont
Shockingly, Antwerp—a city full of diamond traders and fashion students—is also full of cocaine. In fact, Europe’s coke capital is so keen on the stuff that nefarious pigeon fanciers have started doping their racing birds with performance-enhancing gak.
One potential reason behind the Belgian capital’s fondness for blow is that almost 25 percent of the cocaine shipped to Europe from South America makes its way through the country, and a large chunk of that through the port of Antwerp. Conveniently—and kind of unbelievably—only two percent of the containers passing through the port each year are actually screened, meaning not a lot gets seized.
And lucky for the city’s residents, that bountiful supply translates into low, low prices; at an average of $68 a gram, it kind of makes sense that it’s so widely used.
Cannabis growing all over the hills of Lazarat. Photo by Axel Kronholm
The bucolic town of Lazarat is slightly different from many other pastoral Albanian towns, in that its green pastures are mostly made up of cannabis plants, which produce around 900 tons of bud every year. Families can survive off a harvest for a whole year—and growing really is a family business, which is probably why it’s not a good idea to fuck with the kush farmers of Lazarat.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, 800 police surrounded the town. Upon realizing they were boxed-in, residents decided to base their response on the archetypal Michael Bay drug dealer—by grabbing some RPGs and machine guns, and blasting the overwhelmed cops off their turf. Thousands of plants were destroyed, but in the end the police retreated.
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.
This Is How Europe Does Drugs Now
The 2014 European Drug Report came out last week and told us exactly what we already knew: that Europeans are very fond of drugs. Here are some handy heat maps for those of you who don’t know how to read.
In the latest Megg, Mogg & Owl, the titular characters get really high and go to laser tag, where they sing along to Ace of Base. Then things turn violent.
The Joy of Cooking (While Really Stoned)
To fully experience the joy of cooking while really stoned, you must first attain basic proficiency in both of those disciplines separately before ever attempting to combine them. Because if you can’t fry an egg without burning it, getting high will only make matters worse. And if you can’t handle your herb, you’ve got no place in a room full of sharp knives and burning hot surfaces. That said, one needn’t be a top chef or a pot head to have a wonderful time preparing (and consuming) a high-end meal while under the influence. Just start by familiarizing yourself with the following simple guidelines, humbly compiled by The Weed Eater over the course of many years.
Cook With Your Head, Not Over It
A highly ambitious meal plan combined with blazing massive amounts of highly potent cannabis may sound like a recipe for success at the outset, but things will quickly turn sour if and when something goes awry. So if you want to get really high, it’s probably better to elevate a familiar dish rather than trying to boldly cook what you’ve never cooked before.
How-To: Make Sous Vide Pot Butter
Everyone knows how to make a basic weed butter. We took New York chef, David Santos of Louro, to Denver, Colorado to show us how to make sous vide pot butter. He then used it to create the best marijuana meal the world has ever seen: perfectly roasted chicken with sautéed wild mushrooms and a pain perdu from the weed—ahem—pan drippings.
Just in time for Easter
I smoked weed with the President of Uruguay, which in 2013 became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. Sorry mom and dad.
Watch: The Cannabis Republic of Uruguay, Part 1