Pubdate: Thu, 14 Dec 2006
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2006 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Kevin A. Sabet,  a speechwriter for two U.S. drug czars, in the
Clinton and Bush administrations. He is a fellow at National
Development and Research Institutes Inc. in New York and a Ph.D.
candidate at Oxford University. His comments appeared in the
Washington Post.
Note: Does not publish letters from outside its circulation area.


Some say that the state of Michoacan, deep in south Mexico, is where 
the "war on drugs" really started, back in 1985. It was there that 
Mexican drug lords upped the stakes by burying in a shallow grave the 
body of a young Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Enrique 
Camarena, whom they had kidnapped and killed. The U.S. Congress 
responded months later with strict anti-drug laws, including a 
mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for anyone 
trafficking in five grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powder cocaine.

At that time, crack was certainly producing more violence on the 
streets than powder cocaine, and beat cops were expressing 
frustration at this ever-increasing drug market. Undoubtedly it was a 
time to enact "tough" legislation. But today, more than 20 years 
later, drug-related killings remain commonplace in that region of 
Mexico. Six police officers were found dead there one day last month. 
And though crack cocaine use has decreased dramatically since the 
mid-1980s, the debate over what to do about our drug problem rages on.

On the same day as the recent police killings in Mexico, the U.S.

Sentencing Commission -- an independent judicial body that advises 
Congress on sentencing laws -- held hearings on the effectiveness of 
the federal cocaine law. Should five grams of crack cocaine continue 
to trigger the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine? The 
answer is clearly no.

The Sentencing Commission has written that there is a "widely held 
perception that the current penalty structure ... promotes 
unwarranted disparity based on race." The evidence that trafficking 
laws disproportionately affect blacks is hard to quantify, since 
there is little national demographic data on traffickers. Still, this 
law undoubtedly helps funnel young black men (a mind-boggling 85 
percent of federal defendants in crack cocaine cases are black) into 
prison at rates that should cause us concern.

Most of these people are street-level dealers rather than high-level 
traffickers. Theoretically, a mid-to-high-level dealer caught with 
499 grams of cocaine could get a lighter sentence than any one of the 
scores of much lower-level crack dealers he supplied the drug to 
(crack is a simple combination of powder cocaine and baking soda). 
Perhaps most troubling, the law has caused many Americans to lose 
faith in the criminal justice system even as it has increased racial division.

If current laws are unjustified, what are the alternatives? Many drug 
policy activists will tell you that "our laws don't work" and then 
quickly conclude that legalization is the most sensible solution.

But there's no evidence that works either. If addiction, sickness and 
community decay are concerns, then it must be said that drug 
legalization has failed as a social experiment -- witness the massive 
problems of legalized drugs in other places (remember Switzerland's 
Needle Park?) or legalized tobacco today (where commercialization 
fuels addiction and high profits).

But of course no serious drug policy analyst can look you in the eye 
and tell you that our only alternatives are strict prohibition or lax 
legalization. There is, in fact, a comfortable position closer to the 
middle: We can reform the worst parts of our laws without fearing 
massive increases in drug use. Erasing or dramatically closing the 
gap between the sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is a 
good example of this.

The commission last argued for a 20-to-1 sentencing ratio (as opposed 
to the present 100-to-1) as a politically sensitive solution, and 
some members of Congress have argued for wiping out the distinction 
altogether. Just about anything would be better than current policy.

It sounds easier than it is, of course, but the current political 
climate may be just right. President Bush, two days before his first 
inauguration, expressed a desire for a change, telling CNN that the 
law "ought to be addressed by making sure the powder cocaine and the 
crack cocaine penalties are the same," because he didn't "believe we 
ought to be discriminatory." With the president now saying he is 
ready to work with the newly elected Democratic leadership, reform 
could be within reach.

Such a move would be more about making our drug policies "smart," and 
less about looking "tough." And it certainly would be about time.
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