Cocaine penalties & federal sentencing pitfalls

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the penalties for crack cocaine were about 100 times those for powdered cocaine.  These penalties have now been changed last November.  Then the United States Sentencing Commission made the changes retroactive.  That retroactivity has allowed and will allow approximately 19,500 inmates, mostly black, to seek reductions in the sentences they had received.  Four out of five crack defendants are black.

Crack is smoked, so it gets into the bloodstream faster than powdered cocaine, which is ordinarily snorted.  Crack therefore produces a more intense high and is considered more addictive than powdered cocaine.

Experts say the difference between the two types of cocaine do not merit the 100-to-1 disparity that was written into the federal sentencing guidelines in 1986.  Under those guidelines a mandatory minimum of 5 years imprisonment for trafficking in 5 grams of crack, less than the amount of two packets of sugar, whereas it would take 100 times that quantify of powdered cocaine to result in this sentence.

Powered cocaine was typically sold in the mid-1980s by the half-gram or gram for $50 to $100, while crack was sold as small rocks costing as little as $10.  Crack became popular in poor, largely minority urban areas, and it developed a reputation as a drug used mostly by violent, inner-city youths.  It became a “demonic new substance, “ according to Craig Reinarman, a sociology and legal-studies professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, editor of the 1987 book “Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice.”

When crack first became popular, there was an increase in murders and other crimes associated with crack.  But the bloodshed was not necessarily the result of something inherent in crack.  Most of that violence was typical for what happens when any illegal drug is introduced and drug dealers with guns compete for new markets, according to Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Adding fuel to the concern about crack in 1986 was the death of Len Bias.  He was a basketball star at the University of Maryland just drafted by the Boston Celtics.  His much-publicized death made an impact on Congress.    It was blamed on crack cocaine, although months later one of Bias’s teammates testified Bias had actually snorted powdered cocaine.


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