OAKLAND -- Until she was 17, Carla Wright never took much of a shine to drugs. While her friends were experimenting with pot and alcohol, she stood coolly back, above the fray. And then, one day, in 1983, a friend introduced her to crack cocaine.

"I tried it, and I liked it," said Wright, 45, now a program co-director at the East Oakland Recovery Center. "I figured I could handle it."

But like countless thousands of other black Americans living in urban ghettos during the 1980s, Wright quickly fell victim to the allure -- and the soon-to-follow devastation -- of crack. First, she lost her job at a day care center. Then she stopped going to classes at Laney College. Her mother kicked her out of her house. She started squatting in derelict drug shacks and later drifted to the streets.

She did whatever was necessary to score another hit, sometimes spending up to $500 a day on drugs. She beat people up for crack, and was herself beaten. It was all part of the game. She even tried her hand at dealing, but gave up because she found using so much more rewarding.

Eventually, the police took away her daughter. Six years passed before, finally, she gave it up.

"Crack was absolutely everywhere," Wright recalled, grimacing at the painful memories. "It was on every corner, every day, all the time."

Wright calls her descent into the crack-infested hell that nearly destroyed her "the '80s bottom."

Rock bottom

Researchers, social scientists and law enforcement experts now generally agree that crack -- perhaps more than any other single factor during the 1980s and early 1990s -- led to a massive disruption of what was until then a steady improvement of African-American life in this country.

"As far as I know, nothing was as extreme (in terms of violence) as the crack markets," said Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research and a noted expert on the crack epidemic at Carnegie Mellon University.

Congress responded to the documented increase in violence that accompanied crack's spread by passing a law in 1986 that made possession of crack roughly 100 times as punitive as powder cocaine.

The effect of the drug on the black community was fast, brutal and stark. Within a few short years in the early 1980s, national homicide rates more than doubled for black teens between 14 and 17. Fetal death rates more than doubled as well, and enrollment in foster care shelters soared, as mothers who had succumbed to "rock" cocaine abandoned their families or, having sold all their possessions for drugs, were no longer able to care for their children.

In a June paper called "Measuring Crack Cocaine and Its Impact," three noted drug researchers from Harvard, the Rand Corp. and the University of Chicago devised a "crack index" that provides a detailed correlation between the drug's rise and a corresponding increase in criminal activity across the country.

"Crack can account for much of the rise in Black youth homicides," the study concluded, "as well more moderate increases in a wide range of adverse birth outcomes for Blacks in the 1980s."

Crack declines

But while crack remains a popular drug across America, particularly in Newark, N.J., Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Francisco, it is no longer associated with violence and property crime the way it once was, researchers say.

"A key point is that while it was destructive over time initially, it has become less so," said Paul Heaton, one of the study's authors and a leading expert on crack. "Despite the fact that cocaine prevalence and arrests have remained high, crack is less associated with bad stuff."

That's partly because other drugs, such as methamphetamines, have replaced it in many communities.

But it's also because so many thousands of families have seen its effects up close, and have passed the message along.

"When it reached its peak in the '90s, word went out that it wreaked havoc, and that reduced demand," Carnegie Mellon's Blumstein said, "I mean, look what it does to you."

Michael Stark, 59, the director of the East Oakland Recovery Center and a recovering addict himself, sees the effects every day.

Oakland, one of the nation's worst-hit cities in the 1980s, is still recovering. Crack is still the drug of choice among the dozens of African-American clients who pass through his doors each month.

"It still tears families apart," he said. "But I think people are getting help at an earlier stage, the community has been able to empower itself so that (the drug) doesn't gain more power."

Jailed dealers

The effects of crack may be less visible on the streets today than they once were. But America's prisons are still filled with thousands of inmates jailed on crack-related offenses, and the vast majority of them are African-American.

In 2007, more than 80 percent of crack offenders in federal prisons were black, even though data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that two-thirds of crack users in America are white or Hispanic, according to a 2008 study by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that has been lobbying for two decades on behalf of inmates sentenced under the strict 1986 laws.

Dealers, who may be more often African-American, may also be targeted by police more often than users.

Activists across the country have been lobbying to change the laws on crack and powder cocaine for more than 20 years.

Last spring they achieved a victory of sorts. In May, Congress passed a law reducing the gap between powder cocaine and crack offenses by almost 75 percent. In August, President Barack Obama signed it into law. From now on, crack offenders will receive, on average, a 25 percent shorter sentence than they have over the past 20 years.

"There are still people who believe there are differences between these two drugs," said Mary Price, the vice president and general counsel for FAMM, which was instrumental in pushing for the legislative change last spring. "But the overall fight to equalize the two drugs didn't happen."

Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/scott_c_johnson and Twitter.com/oaklandeffect.