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Supreme Court Holds Crack Penalties Apply to "Cocaine Base"

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #688)
Politics & Advocacy

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the US Supreme Court upheld a 10-year federal prison sentence for possession of cocaine base, rejecting an appeal that harsher penalties for crack cocaine did not apply to "cocaine base." The case was DePierre v. US, and it concerned the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed at the height of mid-1980s crack hysteria.

The Supreme Court says "cocaine base" means more than just crack. (Image via
Under that law, possession of 50 grams of "cocaine base" was punishable by a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, while it took five kilograms of powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride or "cocaine salts") to garner the same sentence. While those penalties have been imposed almost exclusively on crack cocaine offenders, the words "crack cocaine" do not appear in the law. Instead the harsher penalties are imposed on those who possess substances or mixtures containing "cocaine base."

Frantz DePierre got busted for selling more than 50 grams of "cocaine base" to an undercover agent in Massachuseets in 2005. At trial, a federal judge rejected his request to instruct the jury that "cocaine base" meant only crack cocaine, and a federal appeals court in Boston agreed with the trial judge. And now the US Supreme Court has endorsed those lower court rulings.

"Cocaine base," as used in the 1986 law, "means not just 'crack cocaine,' but cocaine in its chemically basic form," Justice Sotomayor held, as the court upheld DePierre's conviction and 10-year prison sentence. That basic form includes "the molecule found in crack cocaine, freebase, and coca paste," she continued. "On its plain terms then, 'cocaine base' reaches more broadly than just crack cocaine.

While Congress last year voted to substantially reduce -- although not eliminate -- the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, crack still earns you substantially more time than powder. And this ruling clarifies that those stiffer penalties apply to freebase and coca paste, as well as crack.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


kickback (not verified)

I guess that Joe Biden just took a smack down. Seeing Obama increase federal drug war spending is absurd. Candidate Obama declared the drug war to be a colossal failure. Must be those over-sized flip flops that he now wears.

Tue, 06/14/2011 - 3:32am Permalink
Dr_H. (not verified)

To "This is Treason": What do you mean? What treason is Obama committing? You "mentioned" treason but did not actually say anything about it or how he is committing it. There is no backing information. You could have just as easily said "Obama is a duck." I am not for or against Obama.  As far as I am concerned he is just another president.  But if you are going to take the time to express an opinion, then express it.  Say something, make an observation, quote someone, use sources, say why you think what you think.  Give some credibility to your opinion so that others may take it seriously, so it may spark a debate, cause a thought, champion a view or add to our collective knowledge.  Make your opinion count by backing it up with information.  Sean

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 3:49pm Permalink
Hitcliff J. (not verified)

I believe this is the right thing to do. Glad that the harsher sentences under a federal anti-drug statute for "cocaine base" applied to more than just "crack cocaine," but to all forms of cocaine in its basic form.
It's just surprising, the term "cocaine base" as used in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA) referred only to "crack cocaine." The ADAA imposes harsher penalties for those convicted of selling "cocaine base" than the penalties for "powder cocaine. As for the broadly discussed in numerous articles I read found by byfiles search, increase federal drug war spending, well, let's just hope this money will be used for good. Sure thing it would be nice if all dealers and addicts refused drugs, but let's be realistic: if you want to achieve success, you have to work and spend money on that.

Tue, 11/01/2011 - 7:35am Permalink

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