The life history approach with samples of crack and noncrack drug users described initiation into and involvement in crack, the social process of crack involvement, and other drug use and criminality. Interviewers included former drug abusers and blacks. Attention to the environment in which interviews occurred was also critical to gaining cooperation. Staff were careful to construct a comfortable and psychologically safe environment. Recruiting subjects and eliciting detailed responses about sensitive topics required the use of incentives for participation; interview payments averaged $10 an hour. Another strategy consisted of adopting the stance of a friend or good samaritan. Interviews showed that the heavy crack user was very underweight; eyes were frequently wide open with a "spacey" look. Users were nervous, had a paranoid style of interaction, and were constantly sniffling as if they had a cold. Drug users of marijuana and pills did not have outward identifying traits and were difficult to find and differentiate from the many nondrug users in the low-income community. Providing a safe environment for subjects, assuring them of confidentiality, and displaying familiarity with their culture and lifestyle helped to eliminate initial skepticism about participating in interviews. 26 references.