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Sentencing: Attorney General Calls for Elimination of Crack-Powder Cocaine Disparity

US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the gap in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses must go. Holder's remarks came as he addressed a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Eric Holder
Under federal sentencing laws in place since the mid-1980s, five grams of crack cocaine earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. This 100-to-1 disparity has hit black defendants the hardest. According to US government figures, 82% of federal crack offenders are black and only 9% white.

Pressure has been building for the past decade to reform those laws and reduce or eliminate that disparity. The notion has broad support even in Congress, but faces a perilous path among competing bills and competing notions about how the disparity should be addressed -- eliminate it completely, lower the ratio, or even increase powder penalties -- and how broadly the entire federal sentencing structure needs to be reformed.

Holder made it clear where the administration stands. "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy. This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

That's a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which fought hard to maintain the current cocaine sentencing structure despite opposition from the US Sentencing Commission, drug and criminal justice system reform advocates, an increasing number of prosecutors and judges, and an increasing number of legislators.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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I realize that I am going against the current here, but I'm not sure this is such a no-brainer. If you are going to support a prohibitionist stance, it would make sense to have the relative illegality (degree of consequence) be proportionate to the danger of the drug. The danger of a specific drug is clearly dependant on the method of administration, so the sentencing desparity, while racist in effect, is not necessarily racist in design.

For example Britain schedules amphetamines differently depending on if they are being administered as pill or using needle, which is a sensible approach.

Of course the very idea that drug use or abuse should be punished criminally is one that should be questioned, even in the case of harmful drugs. But I believe making a legal (and safety) destinction between freebased cocaine (including crack) and powdered (via snorting) is valid.

In a more rational society, I think the coca leaf would be available in grocery stored and service stations. Cocaine should probably regulated rather heavily, something a bit more serious than how we handle alcohol perhaps (just based on it's rational scale of danger). Crack would probably best remain illegal, but following a more civilized policy of enforcement (e.g. mandatory counseling with maintenance programs rather than prison time).

I realize the motivation here is to remove a race disparity, which is a laudable goal, but it has the side effect of making our drug laws even less rational.

You're right that it should

You're right that it should be considered a different drug (crack is probably not more "dangerous" per se than powder, but probably has a higher capture rate into heavy, frequent use) but 100x is ridiculous and obviously a knee-jerk "solution" that sounded good to people who felt *something* needed to be done about crack, but without thinking of what.

Forgot to mention

Glen, google "Eric Sterling" to find out the ridiculous storm in which these dumb laws where quickly whipped up.


The forces in place that formed and kept this disparity in place were the same that drove the "common sense" argument for maintaining and ratcheting up prohibition enforcement: sensationalism. Medical rationale is never needed when a politician can refer to "crack baby" cases and inner city gangs killing each other over territory and drug profits in order to become a hero and pass increased penalties for whatever the current drug menage happens to be at the time the media popularizes these scares. At that point, all sensible discussion gets tossed out.


Holder should end the disparity...

between assholes and good guys in Congress. Right now, it's a very high ratio of assholes to good guys and nobody seems to care.

Fix that ratio and he won't have to worry about the coke vs crack ratio since prohibition will have been ended.

Chapter 7 of Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice

This is a great link if you want to read it, but since it's not very short, here I copy/pasted the conclusion of the chapter:

Popular beliefs and attitudes about cocaine and crack have been shaped by journalists. Because the media are businesses seeking ever-larger markets of readers and audiences, they generally frame stories in ways that resonate with the sympathies and antipathies that make up conventional wisdom regarding drugs. In this sense, the crack story is simply the most recent installment in a series of morality tales that simultaneously construct and confirm Americans' belief in the power of drugs to disinhibit and harm users. However, there is something new—or at least refined—in crack journalism: the emergence of a group of "drug experts" who use pharmacological language and concepts to support existing drug myths while ignoring pharmacological principles and evidence that challenge those myths. Some of the articles published in drug abuse and medical journals appear scientific but are not because the taken-for-granted premise of their authors—like that of most journalists—is simply that any crack use is highly destructive.
Our review of the available literature indicates that most of the claims that have been made about crack's hazards are either exaggerated or unfounded. In both powder and crack form, cocaine can be toxic, especially when consumed in large doses, and even small doses may produce harm in some users. However, most users experience no serious adverse health consequences related to their use. Cocaine also appears to be weak as a fetal toxin, and no physical or developmental abnormalities in infants can be attributed causally and specifically to maternal use of cocaine or crack. In both fetuses and adults, the relatively large safety margin associated with cocaine is probably linked to humans' extensive homeostatic responses to stimulant drugs—protective mechanisms confirmed by pharmacological science but rarely even mentioned by those interested in publicizing cocaine's harms.
Cocaine does not produce physical dependence, and babies are not born addicted to this drug. Numerous studies have shown that laboratory animals can be manipulated to self-administer cocaine repeatedly, but such studies provide very little insight into cocaine's addictive potential in humans. Among humans, cocaine addiction is relatively rare as a proportion of the total number of people who have tried it, regardless of the form in which the drug is employed. Early claims that smokeable cocaine caused instant addiction were clearly wrong. In fact, there is no evidence that the rapid onset/rapid decline of effect associated with smoking makes addiction or even escalated use inevitable. As Reinarman et al. suggest in Chapter 4, smoking may increase the likelihood that cocaine users will engage in bingeing. But it may also turn out that the problems associated with such bingeing may move crack users—"drug dependent" or not—more quickly toward quitting or curtailing their use. Because the excessive use of a drug over a short period of time is likely to cause more individual and social dysfunction than moderate use over a long period of time, the tendency of crack users to binge means that crack can be viewed as more risky than powder cocaine. However, it is important keep in mind that many crack users take the drug occasionally, do not engage in prolonged binges, and do not become dysfunctional.
We have argued that the route of cocaine administration matters less than the public has been led to believe—a conclusion based on comparing smoking and sniffing, the two modes of ingestion most prevalent in American society. The practice of swallowing cocaine, although not free from abuse potential, almost certainly provides users with a substantially wider safety margin. Of course, swallowing is also a more "inefficient" way to consume a drug, and under a system of drug prohibition, such milder (and more "expensive") modes of ingestion tend to disappear. In this sense, the emergence of crack is part of a general trend that has been operating since cocaine prohibition was put into place early in the twentieth century. Fortunately, this more efficient mode of ingesting cocaine has not dramatically increased the risks associated with its use. Although there are risks involved in using crack, they have been consistently exaggerated. As the other chapters in Part I of this book demonstrate, most of the problems associated with crack are products of the social context in which it arose and is used, not its pharmacological powers or "efficient" route of administration.

Stop selling crack!

This argument to equalize the punishment is totally ridiculous, and I'm already tired of reading about it-that law need not be changed! The fact that crack is cheap and therefore more available to the poor has nothing to do with it because crack is highly addictive to the rich and the poor alike, so poor people just need to find a new way to make $ without getting everyone hooked on super-addictive drugs for god's sake! I know which one is more addictive because I've tried them, and I hate coke! When you hit crack you go str8 to that heavenly whole body orgasm in like ten seconds and IMMEDIATELY want more and badly as it takes you to the same place a lot faster than coke, so of course it is more addictive! I'm enraged by people who argue that just because black people aren't as likely to actually use crack and are more likely to get busted selling it (or having it for an unknown reason-their case somehow merely "involves" crack-stupid defense), they don't deserve any harsh punishments. They won't taste their own medicine because they'd rather use addicts, who are willing to pay their outrageous prices, for $ and power! Why not contrast this idea with the one that Mexico had about why they should legalize small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroine for personal use. They did that because they didn't want to continue to fill their jails with "people who have these addictions". In the same way, people who are busted with possessing coke or small amounts of crack for personal use in the USA may be offered rehab as part of a deferral program to help with their addiction because they are prone to use (5 grams is NOT a small amount of crack for personal use). But then we have these non-using, black, crack dealers! They don't get involved with crack because they have a substance abuse problem at all as half of them have never used it in their whole life; they only get involved with crack because they don't wanna work, and they wanna make free $ on the black market even though they know that it could be at the expense of their own freedom! They actually DECIDE to do that in spite of the well-known consequences. They're too smart to be foolish enough to use the addictive substance, but the truth is they're not smart enough to keep from getting set up and sent to prison for life for selling it to criminal informants like myself. They just need to go to jail for trying to mess everyone up for free $! And I think that the fact that they don't use makes their involvement with the substance less understandable and not more so! If the punishment for crack is so bad, why don't they just stop selling crack? Most white people find other, more productive, ways to make a living as they are less likely get caught in that net of justice because crack is an extremely addictive drug that is dangerous to get busted screwing around with and for good reason! They're always getting busted with it, yet statistics show they don't use it as much. So it's laughable to suggest that they should be offered any chance of drug treatment instead of prison. That will not fix them-they are sick, lazy people looking for any easy way OUT and using a hard substance that often ends up being an easy way IN to some hard time! It's not racial disparity, it's disparity against fools!

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