Crack Cocaine: The 'Monster' That's Waiting
To Pounce




RUBEN CASTANEDA: I had aspired to stop using crack when I came to Washington. I thought it would not be a very good idea to use crack while working for The Washington Post and covering the crime beat in the most murderous city, where the president had just declared a war on drugs. But I couldn't stop.


That is the voice of Ruben Castaneda. When he first moved to Washington, D.C., he lived life along two, separate tracks. He was a crime reporter for the one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country. At the same time, Castaneda was a crack addict. He found himself buying drugs in the same lawless neighborhoods where he was working stories. A year before he moved to D.C., he took that very first hit.

Ruben Castaneda is our Sunday Conversation.

CASTANEDA: It seemed like time stood still. I knew from reading a number of articles - magazine articles, newspaper articles - how destructive crack was, and how allegedly addictive it was. But in that moment, I didn't think that I could ever become an addict. I didn't think that there would be horrific consequences for me. I was 27 - old enough to know better, but young enough to feel I was bulletproof. And it was like nothing I'd ever felt before. It was this intense, almost instant euphoria.

MARTIN: So fast-forward a year. In 1989, you take a job with The Washington Post - a good job; and you saw this as a fresh start. But at the same time, it was a job you knew - where you knew you were going to be surrounded by people in this world, by drug dealers.

CASTANEDA: One of the hallmarks of addiction is this tremendous sense of denial. So I had a deep sense of denial, and I told myself that so long as I was doing my job, I would eventually be OK. And I was doing my job well. Ironically, the job was covering crime during the middle of the crack era, which unleashed a tremendous wave of violence in the city. As you may recall, D.C. was known as the murder capital. And here I was, using crack while chronicling the effects of it.

My life was very compartmentalized. I was able to set aside what I was doing on my off days and nights, and focus on my job when I was working my night shift.

MARTIN: At the same time, you're covering the escalating violence in the city. There were about 500 murders a year in Washington, D.C., during the prime years of this epidemic. Did that make you afraid that you were going to become one of those statistics, down the road?

CASTANEDA: I was afraid a couple of nights before Thanksgiving 1991. I went to an apartment building to try to find a contact; a young lady named Carrie, who I sometimes picked up to make buys for me. She wasn't there. But a young man who was much larger than me opened the door, and he invited me in. I started to step in, and he quickly grabbed me and slammed me against a wall. He called out for his friend to bring him "the thing." And it turned out that "the thing" was a gun.

I thought it was over, at that point. And I closed my eyes and just looked down at the ground, and just waited for the darkness to come. Then he said: I need the answers. And it occurred to me that maybe he thought I was with the police or an FBI agent. Fortunately, I had my crack pipe inside the pocket of my shirt. He took it out and he looked, and he saw that it had been used. And once he realized that I was there to buy crack, he let me go - once he relieved me of my money.

MARTIN: How did the drug laws back then - the enforcement of those laws or lack thereof - how did that affect your habit, do you think?

CASTANEDA: It didn't. I didn't weigh what would happen to me if I got caught. It's not part of the...

MARTIN: It wasn't a part of the calculation.

CASTANEDA: It's not part of the calculation for most addicts. Now, I did try to avoid being caught, and the D.C. police never caught me. But I did not ever think of what the consequences would be if I was caught holding crack cocaine.

MARTIN: So what changed? What changed things for you?

CASTANEDA: A few days before Christmas 1991, there had been a couple of people - or maybe only person in the newsroom who had noticed that I wasn't myself when I showed up for work one day. So I acknowledged that I was drinking too much and that I was using cocaine. I didn't provide any details - they didn't ask for any. And they had me start seeing this counselor.

But I didn't stop. I showed up for work in late December, in obviously bad condition. So the next night when I came to work and - the paper had made arrangements for me to go to a suburban hospital's rehab unit.

MARTIN: Have you ever come close to relapsing?

CASTANEDA: I actually did relapse once, 77 days after I was released from the hospital. This would have been March of 1992. I ran into one of my old contacts, a young woman who made buys for me...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

CASTANEDA: ...she offered me a hit. And we went back to my apartment, and I took a hit. It was perhaps the scariest moment of my life. I immediately knew that I was in trouble because I just wanted more. And this is, I think, something that a lot of people don't understand about, you know, why someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman could resume using drugs after not using for such a long time.

The addiction never dies. I'm not recovered or cured. I'm still an addict. I haven't used in almost 22 years, but the addiction is actually getting stronger every day. I think of it as a monster that's waiting to pounce. When I relapsed, this monster was already - had gained an incredible amount of strength because I just wanted more right away.

MARTIN: What's life like for you now?

CASTANEDA: Life's pretty good. I have the same issues and challenges that anybody does. I try to stay active. I play a lot of pickup basketball. I don't think about using or drinking anymore. I think there's a difference of opinion as to whether people can truly change. One has to evolve and change in order to keep going, and to not go back to those substances.

And I have a long way to go, but I feel I have. I'm not the same person I was 22 years ago. So drinking or drugs are not part of my life. They're just not.

MARTIN: Ruben Castaneda is a former reporter for The Washington Post. He joined us here in our D.C. studios. Thanks so much for coming in and sharing your story, Ruben.

CASTANEDA: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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