When they arrived, the students of Professor Martinez’s class, they thought it would be yet another painfully dull and dauntingly difficult day in organic chemistry. The usual Professor Martinez began, “Today we will continue our discussion of acids and bases.” The class sighed.
Denise raised her hand, “Professor, I’ve heard that turning cocaine into crack is an acid-base reaction. Is that true?” Rather than scolding Denise for her outburst, Professor Martinez smiled. “Thank you Denise. This is an excellent example. Class, as Denise said, the reaction of cocaine to form crack cocaine is indeed an acid-base reaction. In fact, another term for crack cocaine is ‘freebase.’”
“Can we make it as a lab?” Karl interjected, much to the delight of the class.
“Well, it’s not a good idea,” Professor Martinez replied.
“Is it because freebase can burst into flames? I once heard that someone caught fire while smoking it,” added Karl with apparent innocence.
Professor Martinez waited for the laughter to subside, turned to the board, and wrote the next reaction. She continued. “Cocaine is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant in the form of its salt, cocaine hydrochloride. How would you make the freebase of cocaine (in other words, crack) from cocaine hydrochloride?”
The class gasped and the room filled with whispers. “Can she really teach us this?” “I don’t think that’s legal.” “I heard rumors about ochem, but I didn’t actually think we’d learn how to make drugs.” “It’s just like Breaking Bad.”
1. How would you answer Professor Martinez’s question? In other words, what could theoretically be mixed with cocaine hydrochloride to make cocaine freebase?
STOP. Do not read any further until you have attempted to answer the question above.
Professor Martinez continued, “Correct. Cocaine is mixed with water and a base to form crack cocaine. The selection of the base is quite important, and you will examine why shortly. Now, crack cocaine is less likely to be flammable than the freebase. When cocaine freebase is synthesized, it is extracted out of the reaction mixture. The base NaHCO3 is typically used to make crack cocaine, and crack cocaine is the evaporated reaction mixture after the reaction between cocaine hydrochloride and NaHCO3. The extraction step is omitted. There is very interesting chemistry that is involved in the synthesis of cocaine freebase, not from cocaine, but from simple laboratory chemicals. As cocaine is a controlled substance—and a very dangerous one at that—it would not be a good idea to undertake its synthesis as a laboratory exercise.”
After the class ended, Karl and Denise walked together to the bus station.
“You were really into class today,” Denise said.
“Yeah,” Karl mumbled sadly and his pace seemed to slacken.
Denise slowed down to keep pace with him and they walked the rest of the way in silence. As they reached the stop, Denise asked “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Karl replied.
Denise offered, “Let’s go have a coffee, my treat.”
Karl looked at his feet and apologized. “I’m sorry, maybe next time.”
Denise insisted. “Come on, let’s go. We need to go over some of the homework Professor Martinez assigned.”
“OK,” Karl resignedly replied. After they finished their coffees and had gone over the homework, Karl made a confession. “I have something to tell you. My dad is a crack addict. He tries very hard to quit, but it is almost impossible.”
“I am so sorry,” Denise said gently.
2. Cocaine (in the form of cocaine hydrochloride) is usually consumed by drinking, snorting, or injecting, but not by smoking. However, the free base form of cocaine is smoked. What is a possible reason for this?
3. Crack cocaine is another term for the freebase form of cocaine. It presumably got its name from the “cracking” sound it makes when being smoked. Why do you think it makes this sound? *Hint: Think about how cocaine is turned into crack cocaine. Where else have you seen or heard about NaHCO3? What does it form when it’s mixed with a base?
“That must be really hard for you. He seems like such a nice guy” said Denise.
“He is. His best friend died from an overdose when he was 15. He swore he’d never do drugs. Once he told me he refused to be another statistic.”
“What happened?” pressed Denise.
“Well, a few years ago he injured his back while helping a friend move their couch. The pain pills ran out and his doctor wouldn’t refill them. He didn’t believe my dad needed them, but he was in agony.” Karl explained sadly. “I think that’s when he got into drugs.”
“I… I don’t know what to say Karl. I’m so sorry.” Denise didn’t realize the conversation was going this direction. “Umm, well, uh, did you know that crack carries more severe prison sentences than cocaine?” she fumbled.
4. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced the disparity in prison sentencing that Denise mentioned. It introduced a 5-year minimum sentencing for the possession of either 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of cocaine. What questions does this inspire in you? What do you think about this disparity? Is it fair? Why or why not? (Please note that there is no one correct answer for this- I genuinely want to know what you think, and it will not affect your grade in any way if you disagree with me!)
Karl nodded. “Of course” he said, his tone a mix of bitterness and sorrow.
“I’m sorry, I was just kind of shocked. I didn’t know what to say.” She paused. “Wait, what do you mean ‘of course’?”
Karl sighed. “In general, white drug users tend to use coke, and black and brown drug users tend to use crack.”
This was not where Denise wanted the conversation to go. They were talking about chemistry, not politics. “Well maybe there’s a reason. Crack is smoked, right? So maybe it’s somehow more addictive?”
“I’ll look it up” said Karl, pulling out his phone. “That’s what Wikipedia says, that it’s supposedly more addictive. But even that’s debated, because apparently you can get the same high with cocaine if it’s injected instead of snorted.”
“Wow” said Denise, phone in hand, “It says in 2010 there was a law that decreased the disparity between prison sentencing for coke and crack because of the public outcry that the sentencing was racially discriminatory. Now instead of 100:1, it’s 18:1. Here it says that before 2010, a mandatory 5-year prison sentence was given for possessing either 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of coke, so that’s the 100:1. I think that that means that after 2010, for 5 grams of crack, you’d get the same sentence as for, hmm, 5 times 18 is 90, so 5 grams of crack or 90 grams of coke would get you the same prison sentence.” Denise paused. “That still doesn’t seem fair. Even so, I don’t know if I buy that it’s about race. I think it’s more about widespread availability and class. Crack is cheaper than coke, so I think the disparity would be between high-income and low-income communities.”
“Well,” said Karl, “I think it’s complicated because race and wealth are often intertwined. For example, in America there’s a clear wealth divide between white families and families of color, and it extends from amount of savings to home ownership to average wages to unemployment rates and more. That’s not to say that every white family is wealthy, or every family of color is poor. You look anywhere and you can find examples to the contrary, but still, when you look at our society as a whole, there’s an undeniable overall trend that’s backed up by thousands of studies. I think it’s due to historic and current systemic barriers. We should talk more about this later, but my point is that systemic racism is real.”
Denise rubbed her cheek. “When you say systemic barriers, do you mean like the disparity in prison sentencing?”
“I don’t agree with you about this being an example of systemic racism, but it does seem unfair to me that there’s a difference in prison sentencing for essentially the same drug” said Denise. “Maybe we need to look at it from other perspectives too and not just chemistry. Perhaps there was a reason for harsher punishments for the cheaper drug, like that it would deter people from using it and keep it off the streets to protect the communities that would be the most impacted.”
“I agree about looking at complex issues from multiple perspectives” said Karl. “Thank you for considering mine. You’ve given me a lot to think about with your point that maybe harsher punishments are meant as a protective measure rather than a punitive one. I’ve seen the devastating impact firsthand of drug use on not just individual people, but entire communities, and it’s awful. I don’t think that harsh sentences for drug possession is the best way to protect people. I’m an advocate for treatment programs so people can break the cycle of addiction.”
Denise paused to think. “Maybe, but aren’t those generally ineffective? I think we both want the same thing overall even if we disagree about how to get there. You’ve given me a lot to think about too. One thing I’ve learned from our conversation is that I have more to learn, starting with digging into the data about whether or not harsher punishments effectively deter drug possession.”
“I have more to learn too” said Karl. “I think I’ll start by searching for data on the effectiveness of treatment programs.”
“I kind of wanted to run when I realized our conversation was going this direction, but in the end I’m glad we could talk about this. It’s hard with polarizing issues in our current political climate, but I think we just modeled how to have difficult conversations. We worked to see things from the others’ perspective, and we each trusted that the other had their heart in the right place.”
“I’ve never been called a model before!” said Karl, striking a dramatic pose.
Denise laughed and pretended to click an invisible camera. “You’re ready for the catwalk. Work it!”
Karl chuckled. “For real though, we also recognized that neither of us knows everything. That humility is crucial in being able to learn. Maybe as we each learn more, we’ll come to an agreement.”
“I hope so, but even if we end up still disagreeing, I think there are things we can work together on, like volunteering in community outreach programs to keep people from getting into drugs in the first place. See you in class tomorrow?”
“See you in class. Thanks for the coffee Denise.”
“Thank you for trusting me with your dad’s story Karl.”
5. What do you think now? What other perspectives and data do you think should be considered? What more would you like to know? (Again, please note that there is no one correct answer for this- I genuinely want to know what you think, and it will not affect your grade in any way if you disagree with me!)