The Surprising Truth About Pre-Natal Cocaine Exposure

By John Lavitt 05/28/14

How a long-term study into so-called 'crack babies' ended with unexpected results.

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One of the pervasive claims in the war on drugs is that crack cocaine has caused permanent brain damage to a whole generation of inner city babies born addicted to crack. But according to the results of a 20-year study by Dr. Hallam Hurt, babies exposed in utero to cocaine – so-called crack babies – showed no significant differences when compared to the control group. In terms of learning disabilities and mental deficiencies, the two study groups from low-income families came out exactly the same.

Dr. Hallam Hurt began studying the problem of crack babies in 1988 by enlisting 224 near-term mothers living in poverty, half of whom used cocaine during pregnancy and half who did not. After birth, the babies were evaluated every six to 12 months until they were young adults. The study received almost $8 million in federal funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As one of the largest and longest-running studies on children exposed to cocaine in utero, the results of the study have been highly anticipated.

Now, 25 years later, the results are somewhat surprising. Dr. Hurt said the research team consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls, and that the babies did not suffer long-term effects. What is quite disturbing, however, is the study found that children in both the control and test groups had lower-than-expected IQs. Although pre-natal cocaine exposure is not the smoking gun, poverty causes serious developmental delays in children across the board.

The statistics were grim. Among the children studied who had all been exposed to cocaine in the womb, 81 percent had seen an arrest, 35 percent had seen someone get shot, and 19 percent had seen a dead body, all before the age of seven. Poverty and the resulting lack of opportunity arising from socio-economic status is the real threat.

"Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt said.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.