The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America's Crack Epidemic

25 years ago, Ruben Castaneda covered Washington, DC's crack scourge while dealing with his own addiction.

George H.W. Bush displaying a bag of crack seized blocks from the White House. Photo by Joe Marquette/Copyright Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images 

Twenty-five 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 battle zones, 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 had 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 firsthand 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 her 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. I didn't care about strawberries; I 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.

Do you think you tried to justify it to yourself as somehow part of the reporting, part of the journalism—or did you know it was just a daliance you'd try to get away with?
In the moment, a daliance I could get away with. But I will say that as a reporter who often went into these rough neighborhoods in LA and Washington, I think that gave me a confidence—and maybe even a cockiness—that I could get away with certain behaviors.

Ruben's press badge from the mid 90s, after he kicked his addiction

Could it have had an impact that was (perversely) helpful—for instance, helping you collect sources?
There were aspects of using that helped me gain insight into how certain neighborhoods worked, how drug dealers operated on the street level, and the limits of ordinary policing in neighborhoods that were drug corners—as I call them, combat zones. On the other hand, I don't think I can say it made me a better journalist, because as time went on—this is the nature of addiction—I just got worse and needed more and more to achieve the same high. By the last six months of using, I started calling in sick more than usual. Sometimes I showed up to work in a less-than-optimal condition.

You got pinched at one point early on in your crack addiction, right? But it obviously didn't scare you off.
I was extraordinarily drunk and was trying to pick up a strawberry—somebody I thought was a strawberry. But it turned out she was an LAPD cop, and I was sent home with a citation. I suffered a number of setbacks over the years, but addiction is a disease where one of the main features is an extraordinarily deep sense of denial. I didn't admit I was an addict until a week or two before my editor took me to the hospital, despite a mountain of evidence that I had a problem.

And you actually smoked crack in the Vista that same night Mayor Barry was busted there? How did that happen?
Whomever I interviewed, guests and staff, they didn't know anything—hadn't seen anything. Eventually, I went back to my room, ordered room service. And along with room service, I ordered a couple of stiff drinks. I was pretty buzzed by the time that it occurred to me, Oh, I could page Champagne—she's usually nearby. She might be holding. And I felt sidelined, I guess, because I had all this energy, or adrenaline, for the big story, plus the alcohol. I think I just felt like I needed to push the edges as much as I could. It was extraordinarily reckless, no doubt. At the time, I really wasn't thinking. I was excited to be, at first, part of the team that was working on the story. And then I was sidelined. There was really not much for me to do, and I had all this energy and was inebriated.

What's your sense of why the crack scourge has faded over the years?
There was a handful of key reasons, one being the nature of crack addiction, which is so intense and destructive that I don't think most crack users had a long shelf-life. Whereas somebody could drink alcoholically for decades, heroin users can ride their highs for decades. Same for people who use powder cocaine and certainly marijuana. Not so, I think, for most crack users—you crash and burn or you get clean in a relatively short window of time. The universe of crack users played out, and I do believe that the younger generation, including young people in inner cities who saw how destructive this was, decided they weren't going to even touch it. The future potential crack users were discouraged by what they saw.

DC also simply flattened a lot of the public housing projects. They're gone—no longer exist. And a lot of the dealing had been in and near public housing. Many of those projects were simply removed from the landscape.

Did you and other crime reporters already know back then that the huge sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine—which was reduced in 2010—had a racial element?
When I was covering the crime beat and out on the street a lot, talking to police detectives and officers and officials, the violence was just so rampant and intense that I don't recall having a whole lot of discussions about whether the crack penalties were disproportionate. It was journalistic triage. As time went on, through the mid to late 90s, I think journalists and law enforcement officials and others began to reflect on and discuss these rampant disparities where nonviolent offenders who were caught with crack received very lengthy federal prison sentences—whereas, usually, white people often got high with the same amount of powder cocaine and got lesser sentences. The discussion didn't even start to take place, I don't think, at least in any concerted way, until the mid to late 90s. 

Do you see yourself pulling a David Simon and adapting this story for TV in the near future? You describe it as a mix of The Wire, Crash, and LA Confidential, so clearly film isn't too far from your mind.
I believe there's some interest from TV and movie people in the book, but we'll just have to wait and see.

You can buy Castaneda's book here.

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