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Crack cocaine guidelines

Much effort has been spent over the years towards eliminating, or at least minimizing, the disparity between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine. As well-intentioned as those efforts may be, the arguments generally miss the mark.

Almost invariably, the focus is on the racial difference in the offenders: the defendants sentenced under the crack guidelines are usually black; for powder, they are white.

The arguments frequently also argue that the dangers of the two forms of cocaine are minimal or non-existent.

However, minimizing the dangers of crack cocaine, or demonizing the defenders of the guidelines’ disparity as racists, will not lead to meaningful reform.

Instead, the focus of the arguments should be on the ease with which powder cocaine can be converted to cocaine base at the point of consumption.

In the mid-1980s, when the “crack epidemic” led to the current laws, use of crack cocaine was in no way limited to blacks or the inner city. White suburban users of powder cocaine had learned to convert powder to cocaine base, and did so readily.

Fear of “crack babies,” the increased feminization of drug consumption and accompanying prostitution, and gang violence in the cities, were the impetus for the changes in law.

But the use of cocaine base by white suburbanites was well-known. Many people who had long used powder cocaine, while still managing to maintain stable employment, no longer were able to do so after they switched to base.

For whatever reason, though, the business model in suburbia remained selling powder, followed by conversion to base at the point of consumption.

In contrast, in inner cities, crack cocaine is readily available already in that form. Powder may be converted in kilogram quantities in L.A., and transported to Milwaukee already as cocaine base.

The unfortunate mule hired at a pittance to transport it then winds up subject to draconian mandatory minimums in federal court.

I agree that the enormous disparity in federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine is arbitrary. However, it is not so because crack is no more dangerous than powder (it is more dangerous); it is not because the guidelines were racist in their inception (they were not).

They are arbitrary because of the ease with which powder can be converted to base at the point of consumption.

As long as the advocates for eliminating the disparity refrain from stressing this point, and stick to imputing racial animus to the guidelines’ defenders, they will not make much progress towards their goal.

One comment

  1. So was George Bush a powder or crack user? I find the statement above, that the guidelines were not racist in their inception, is supported by no evidence whatsoever. I say they were clearly race-based as so many of our criminal laws are. White male Congressmen surely knew what they were doing. Here in Milwaukee racism in criminal law is the worst in the nation. It’s no coincidence. Our legal system has institutionalized racism because it serves the purpose it was intended for.

    Here’s a brain teaser that we all can agree on: Name a black Republican member of Congress.

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