A comprehensive examination of the 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity under which distribution of just 5 grams of crack carries a minimum 5-year federal prisonsentence, while distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law(2006): In the 20 years following passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 2006, many of the myths surrounding crack cocaine were dispelled, making it clear that there was no scientific or penological justification for the 100:1 sentencing ratio.
However, there is a difference in the way that the drugs are taken. Powder cocaine is snorted, injected or swallowed, while crack cocaine is smoked. Thus crack cocaine tends to be cheaper, faster acting, and the high lasts for a shorter period of time, compared to inhaling powder cocaine. How quickly the effects are felt differs based on how it is taken, as do the ways in which the associated harms can be reduced.
Despite the fact that the chemical structure of powder cocaine and crack cocaine is nearly identical, the punishment for crack possession or sales is far greater than that of cocaine. Until 2010, this sentencing disparity was 100 to 1, which means that while just 5 grams of crack would carry a 5-year mandatory minimum, it would take 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the same 5-year sentence. While the law was changed in 2010, there continues to be a disparity of 18 to 1.
This sentencing disparity has had a disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color. Statistics show that Black people are more likely to be convicted of crack cocaine offenses (even though the majority of crack cocaine users are white) and white people are more likely to be convicted of powder cocaine offenses. This means that Black people continue to receive far harsher drug sentences than white people even though powder and crack cocaine are nearly identical substances.
In years past, someone convicted in federal court of possessing crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone who possessed 100 times more powder cocaine (also known as coke). You might wonder what the difference is between crack and coke to justify this 100-to-1 ratio, but as it turns out, there's no significant chemical difference between them: They're both forms of cocaine. The huge difference in federal sentencing laws for possession of each form of the same drug had more to do with wrong information and political pressure than with public safety and health. A 2010 federal law fixed some, though not all, of the sentencing differences for crack and cocaine, and a 2018 law took those changes further.
Crack is made by dissolving powder cocaine (which comes from coca leaves) and baking soda in boiling water and then cutting the resulting paste into small \"rocks\" after it dries. The rocks are usually sold in single doses to users who smoke them. Because of the inexpensive additive (baking soda), a rock of crack cocaine is cheaper than a similar \"dose\" of powder cocaine. But the two forms of the drug are chemically the same and affect the user in the same physical and psychological ways. A person smoking crack cocaine (as compared to snorting or injecting powder cocaine) experiences a faster, more intense high simply because smoke in the lungs affects the brain more quickly than other methods of ingestion.
The harsh sentences for crack came after reports in the mid-80s that the United States was experiencing a \"crack epidemic.\" News outlets reported that crack was more potent, more addictive, and more likely to lead to violence than powder cocaine or other drugs. For example, a 1986 Newsweek article quoted a drug expert who said crack was \"the most addictive drug known to man.\" But within four years, that magazine, and most other media outlets, academics, and law enforcement agencies abandoned that view because no real evidence supported it.
While crack was a hot topic in the news in 1986, Congress held hearings to address the so-called crack epidemic. At the hearings, several senators recited the unscientific (and later discredited) claims about the heightened dangers of crack and its impact on urban communities. The result was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which severely penalized crack cocaine offenses, and was arguably one of the most unjustified sentencing schemes ever created in the United States.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams (or just a few rocks) of crack cocaine. (21 U.S.C. 841 (2006).) \"Mandatory minimum\" means just what it says: A conviction for possessing five grams of crack required at least five years in federal prison, even if it was the person's first offense. By contrast, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, people arrested for powder cocaine had to possess 100 times more than that (500 grams, or over a pound) to face a five-year mandatory minimum. This 100-to-1 ratio was not based on evidence: During the debate on the Act, Congress simply considered various arbitrary ratios (including 20-to-1) and settled on the 100-to-1 ratio, with no evidence to support that figure.
Crack cocaine's lower price, ease of production, and manner of distribution (small quantities sold to individuals for personal use) made it widely accessible in poor, urban communities, which included many Black communities. Although white people also used crack, police efforts to control crack focused mainly on urban Black communities, in part because it was easier; drug deals in those communities usually happened in public on the street, not in private residences as in white communities. They also happened more often, because, unlike people who have the money to stock up on their drug supply, lower-income people can afford only one dose at a time, and each drug deal carries a risk of arrest. The increase in arrests of Black people and the increase in sentences for crack meant that Black people went to prison for cocaine offenses far more often and much longer than white people, even though white people used cocaine (both powder and crack) more than Black people did.
Many legislators who had voted for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act became concerned that most defendants convicted of crack possession were Black, while most defendants in powder cocaine possession cases were white or Latino. And the media (along with the general public) began to note the lack of scientific evidence justifying the vastly different treatment of the two forms of the same drug. Although it took a long time, Congress finally passed legislation in 2010 to address the problem.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possession of five grams of crack, and increased the amount required to trigger mandatory sentencing. (21 U.S.C. 841, 844.) The Act changed the ratio of crack to powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, for purposes of imposing the same sentence for possession of each drug. So, the federal law still imposes a harsher sentence for crack than for coke, but the difference is now less severe.
On the state level, a minority of the states also treated crack and cocaine differently for purposes of sentencing. After the Fair Sentencing Act, some of these states changed that practice. For example, in 2014, California passed the California Fair Sentencing Act, which eliminated the sentencing differences for crack and powder cocaine in state cases.
In the U.S., crack cocaine refers to a smokable variety of cocaine which is considered to be more affordable and accessible than powder cocaine . In the 1980s and 90 s, the U.S. response to crack cocaine was driven by media depictions of an urban, public health crisis primarily affecting black communities in American cities. This media depiction drove U.S. drug policy and shaped both political debate and public attitude towards crack cocaine [1, 2]. The subsequent influx of drug education messages, public service announcements, and curriculums that were created in response to crack cocaine were pervaded by the public and political fear that crack cocaine was destroying a generation of young Americans . The U.S. government response at this time focused on managing the perceived crack cocaine epidemic by criminalizing rather than providing treatment facilities or healthcare services for people who use crack cocaine. In fact, the 1988 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse showed that the sharpest rise in cocaine and crack cocaine use since the inception of the survey in the early 1970s, rapidly outpaced the availability of treatment programs and efforts to expand treatment facilities in metropolitan areas such as New York City .
The French approach to crack cocaine shares commonalities and differences with the U.S. In France, crack cocaine is mostly smoked but more recently is also being injected intravenously and the spike of increased crack cocaine use in France did not occur until the 2000s [5, 6]. French political and media attention towards crack cocaine has also recently increased due to the presence of visible, open drug use in Paris framing the topic as a public order, health, and social problem. This attention stems from crack cocaine in France having increasing associations with socially and economically vulnerable populations when compared to powder cocaine use patterns . Unlike the U.S., the aggregation of racial data is prohibited in France. And as a result, the French understanding of the current rise in crack cocaine use does not clearly analyze the issue along racial lines but rather considers low socioeconomic populations to be drivers of the recent increase in crack cocaine use . Since the late 1970s, in addition to a repressive drug policy approach, France has implemented a strong, publicly funded drug treatment system with harm reduction services to better address the health needs of people who u