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Dark Alliance [Transcript, Pt. 4]

Tran­scripts from Gary Web­b’s orig­i­nal San Jose Mer­cury News series.

August 22, 1996
Crack was born dur­ing 1974 in S.F. Bay Area
by Gary Webb
San Jose Mer­cury News

Though Mia­mi and Los Ange­les are com­mon­ly regard­ed as the twin cra­dles of crack, the first gov­ern­ment-financed study of cocaine smok­ing con­clud­ed that it was actu­al­ly born in the Bay Area in Jan­u­ary 1974.

After come­di­an Richard Pry­or near­ly immo­lat­ed him­self dur­ing a cocaine-smok­ing binge in 1980, the Nation­al Insti­tute on Drug Abuse hired UCLA drug expert Ronald Siegel to look into the then-unfa­mil­iar prac­tice.

Siegel, the first sci­en­tist to doc­u­ment crack­’s use in the Unit­ed States, traced the smok­ing habit back to 1930, when Colom­bians first start­ed it.

But what was being smoked south of the bor­der — a paste-like sub­stance called BASE (bah-SAY) — was very dif­fer­ent from what Cal­i­for­ni­ans were putting in their pipes, Siegel found, even though they called it the same thing: free base.

BASE was a crude, tox­i­cs-laden pre­cur­sor to cocaine pow­der. On the oth­er hand, free base (which lat­er became known as crack or rock) was cocaine pow­der that had been reverse-engi­neered to make it smok­able.

When San Fran­cis­co Bay Area deal­ers tried recre­at­ing the drug they’d seen in South Amer­i­ca, Siegel learned, they’d screwed up.

“When they looked it up in the Mer­ck Man­u­al, they saw cocaine base and thought, well, yeah, this is it,” Siegel, a nation­al­ly known drug researcher, said. “They mis­pro­nounced it, mis­un­der­stood the Span­ish, and thought (BASE) was cocaine base.”

The base described in the organ­ic-chem­istry hand­book was cocaine pow­der sep­a­rat­ed from its salts, a process eas­i­ly done with boil­ing water and bak­ing soda.

It was an imme­di­ate, if unin­ten­tion­al, hit.

“They were wowed by it,” Siegel said. “They thought they were smok­ing BASE. They were not. They were smok­ing some­thing nobody on the plan­et had ever smoked before.”

Using the sales records of sev­er­al major drug-para­pher­na­lia com­pa­nies, Siegel cor­re­lat­ed crack­’s pub­lic appear­ance with the appear­ance of base-mak­ing kits and glass pipes for smok­ing it. The sales records zeroed in on the Bay Area.

“We were able to show to our sat­is­fac­tion that they were direct­ly respon­si­ble for dis­trib­ut­ing the habit through­out the Unit­ed States,” Siegel said.

“Wher­ev­er they were sell­ing their kits, that’s where we start­ed get­ting the clin­i­cal reports. It all start­ed in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.”

His ground­break­ing study was nev­er pub­lished by the gov­ern­ment, pur­port­ed­ly for bud­getary rea­sons.

Siegel, who said he grew con­cerned that the infor­ma­tion would not be made avail­able to oth­er researchers, pub­lished it him­self in an obscure med­ical jour­nal in late 1982.