Before the opioid crisis: When crack cocaine ravaged Palm Beach County

On a weekday afternoon in 1986 on M Street, near West Palm’s Howard Park, a group of pushers was brazenly trying to close a deal.

“You want some rock, man?” one said, leaning in the car window of two reporters from The Palm Beach Post and pulling a plastic bag from his pocket. “Buy my rock. I got the biggest rocks.”

“Taste it,” said another one, sticking an “off-white pebble” under a reporter’s nose.

A dealer named Snaggle boasted about his supply. “I got some ear ring. You know, make yo’ ears ring, it so good.”

Thirty years before the opioid crisis, another drug epidemic cast a bleak shadow across Palm Beach County: Crack cocaine.

RELATED: Why Palm Beach County is the deadly epicenter of the opioid crisis

And like today’s heroin-related epidemic, there were lives lost to overdoses, police agencies juggling an overflow of cases and families desperate to get loved ones into crowded treatment centers.

Because of crack cocaine, or “rocks” in the era’s street parlance, West Palm had the dubious honor of having the highest crime rate in the nation for cities its size in the late ’80s. HBO took note, coming here to film its documentary, “Crack USA: County Under Siege.”

In 1984, many local police departments were not mobilized to attack the problem. But everything changed by the following year. And in March 1986, the Post kicked off a three-day series on “the new epidemic.”

The headline: “It’s Cheap, It’s Addictive and It’s Ravaging Society.”

There were few parts of Palm Beach County that didn’t feel the effects. Long before it became the gleaming shopping mecca of CityPlace, that area of West Palm Beach was a crack nightmare of boarded-up houses and unsafe streets. The Post ran a large map pinpointing documented areas of high cocaine sales: west Lantana, Lake Worth, Riviera Beach, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach. Up into the Treasure Coast: Hobe Sound, Stuart, Indiantown, Fort Pierce.


“It’s eating up my residential neighborhoods,” said then-Riviera Beach Police Chief Frank Walker. “You run to the neighborhood grocery store and you have to run a gantlet of neighborhood pushers to get a carton of milk.”

Smoked in pipes or cola cans, the freebase form of cocaine, unlike the trendy powder form, cost hardly nothing — rocks sold for $20 each, the Post reported. It was marketed in predominantly black neighborhoods to predominantly white customers. The “hook” was a quick high, followed by a deep low that would have a user immediately jonesing for more to alleviate the post-rush depression.

And users would do anything to get more.

A Martin County sheriff’s lieutenant reported that one man took his family refrigerator, strapped it on his car hood and took it to his dealer at 3 a.m. to barter for two rocks. Pushers, who could make up to $1,000 a day, would go door-to-door in apartment houses selling crack. They’d jump into cars to make a sale, or reach into cars and grab money or jewelry. Police reported that women were selling sex for crack.

“People used to give me VCRs and TVs,” a 25-year-old, ex-Marine crack dealer in a trendy townhouse told the Post. “One guy even brought me his mother’s wedding ring and I told him, ‘No, I can’t do it.’…You’ll be surprised when people get hooked on that stuff, what they’ll do. They’ll sell their wives.”

The Post ran a statistical profile of the average county crack addict: Predominantly white, 25 years old, employed, with the highest percentage of those surveyed making $25,000-$50,000 a year. Hooked for nearly four years. Average total spent on cocaine: $20,000. Most spent: $500,000.

Addicts frequently turned to crime. More statistics: 42 percent stole to feed their habit. 36 percent became pushers. Nearly 45 percent reported losing jobs and a spouse or loved one.

Treatment was not easy. Public clinics were swamped. At the time, the area district had only 50 beds for drug addicts. Low-cost, non-profit treatment centers had waiting lists of 200 or more.

Much as we’ve seen in today’s opioid epidemic, parents came forward and told horrific stories of trying to save their children. The Post interviewed addicts in recovery:

A 37-year-old financial advisor with a master’s degree had used powdered cocaine socially for years, but the rock ruined him. He burned through a $50,000 inheritance, pawned his belongings and “proceeded to write bad checks at every Publix in Palm Beach County.” To pay off debts, he sold a $6,000 Cadillac for $2,000, then stopped to buy rocks with the profit.

A 17-year-old John I. Leonard High School senior talked about her three-to-four-rock-a-week habit and how she stole her great-great-great grandmother’s wedding ring to buy it. A newsstand owner reported spending $50,000 on crack and losing his business. A former Boy Scout of the Year dropped out of high school when he became addicted.

Stories began to appear about “cocaine babies.” In April 1986, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said a woman was freebasing before going into labor. In August 1986, the Post reported that 14 newborns at St. Mary’s Hospital had cocaine in their bodies.

By mid-1986, the Miami Herald reported that 36 people had died from using cocaine that year.

As the year closed, the Post declared that for police departments, “1986 was a year of war against cocaine crack.” A war it was losing.

From December 1985 to December 1986, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office made more than 1,000 drug-related arrests, and other local departments reported just as many. The Sheriff’s budget increased $13 million to fight crack cocaine. They tried reverse stings on users, arrested dealers for loitering, raided drug houses, stopped traffic entering neighborhoods. Nothing seemed to stem the tide.

The state created a Cocaine Task Force. Departments established tactical units to address the crisis. They gave the efforts nicknames: Operation Rock and Roll, Operation Go Away, Operation Crackdown on Crackhouses.

But one title best summed up the underlying despair and provided a harbinger of the years ahead as crack continued to ravage lives and neighborhoods throughout the 1980s and 1990s:

Operation Sadness.

This story was compiled from 1986 Palm Beach Post accounts by former staff writers Paul Blythe, Carol Smelser Perry, Linda Lyon and Fran Hathaway.

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