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Washington Post Story on Crack Sentencing Bill

Carrie Johnson at the Washington Post has written a nice story on the Durbin bill to reduce federal crack cocaine penalties to the level of powder cocaine penalties. It quotes my colleagues Jasmine Tyler of Drug Policy Alliance (known inside the Beltway as "Jazz") and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the sentencing reform group that has led the fight to end mandatory minimums since the early '90s. I have a minor nitpick with the article, which is that it presents the issue as having civil rights and justice reform advocates and some politicos on one side, with law enforcement on the other, quoting a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police saying that in the past their members have favored raising powder cocaine penalties instead. While the article doesn't say that all law enforcement is against reducing the penalties, it does fail to mention that there is also law enforcement support for lowering penalties. The press release from Sen. Durbin announcing the bill cites Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, Miami police chief John Timoney, and the National Black Police Association. I also have to comment on some of the comments I saw by Post readers. Most of the commenters were in support of reducing penalties as the bill does. But a few characterized it as "stupid," saying it would allow people to go on selling crack in inner city black communities, and thereby hurting those communities. As usual, it's the people throwing around words like "stupid" who've done the least thinking about the issue. If they had in fact stopped to think, they would realize that: 1) possession sentences are getting adjusted by this bill, helping people now going to prison for years for just for possessing tiny quantities of crack; and that: (2) incarcerating a drug dealer just creates a job opportunity for another dealer. Often the new would-be dealers fight it out over the old dealer's turf, hurting the community much much more.
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Is the sentencing disparity really bad?

I understand the criticism of the sentencing disparity, but I'm not sure I agree with making the sentencing equal for crack and powder cocaine. The fact is that imbibing crack cocaine is vastly more harmful and addictive than use of powder cocaine, and a rational drug policy would handle the two cases differently. While it's true that crack cocaine sentencing is probably best described as insane, it is rational to have different policies in place for crack cocaine users & dealers, powdered cocaine users and dealers, and leaf cocaine users and dealers.

The issue is discussed quite well by prof Richard Nutt et all in "Making a Hash of It", a quite thorough analysis of the failings of British drug policy. He addresses the fact that the same drug can fall into a different schedule, depending on means of application. The example he deals with is (as I recall) amphetamines taken orally versus by injection. The danger and harm associated with injected amphatamine being vastly higher than that with orally ingested amphetamines. Notably, he makes a strong case that this is in fact a useful and rational approach.

The issue of crack vs powder cocaine sentencing is complicated by the fact that the two forms of use fall along class (and hence race) lines. So although the laws are in fact rational, they are also de-facto (and likely by intent) racist. In this interim period, where prohibitionist policy and a war-mindset do so much harm, any shift in policy which reduces that harm is probably helpful. But I worry that a mindset will set in that treating crack and powdered cocaine differently is inherently bad and racist. This simply isn't the case.

As we begin to craft a rational, and well thought out drug policy, I'm of the opinion that policies, and regulation levels for potentially harmful substances should be proportional to their potential for harm. Anything who's rational harm assessment falls less than or equal to that of alcohol should have less than or equal regulation. I.e. lsd, cannabis, ecstacy, khat, should be available with proof of age in a licensed shop or bar. I haven't yet seen a rigorous assessment of the potential of harm for the various forms of cocaine, but it would seem likely that in a sane and rational system, coca leaves could be bought in the supermarket, and coca tea in a coffee shop. powdered cocaine would be regulated with at least (and perhaps somewhat greater) restriction than alcohol, while crack would likely be treated in a similar fashion to heroin.

Looking at the harm graph in the link above, I always get stuck right about the cocaine level. Cocaine, and higher harm/addiction substances do deserve to be treated more seriously than tobacco and alcohol. Clearly prohibition and harsh prison sentences aren't good ideas. Is it sufficient to label and sell the products like we do alcohol and tobacco? If so, it would be necessary to label the relative dangers clearly, so people can make intelligent decisions. Should they only be available by prescription (combined with maintenance and councelling programs)? Some other idea, like providing people with a "drug license" which allows them to purchase and use drugs after passing a course educating them on the relative risks and treatment options? Obviously this is an area where we should keep open minds and strive to find new approaches.

But in the end, yeah, I think crack needs to be handled differently than powdered cocaine.

Where the cocaine comes from:

Check out "Cocaine Army" with Macon Kerrington on Youtube. The people that made the laws against cocaine are cocaine smugglers. Peace.

Today's news from Medellin illustrates last point of post

murders have doubled since 2008 when the local drug boss was extradited, as other drug dealers try to fill the power vacuum, as reported by Reuters today.

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