Pubdate: Tue, 25 Dec 2007
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2007 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: Denise Lavoie


BOSTON - During some of the bloodiest years of the drug wars of the
1980s, crack was seen as far more dangerous than powdered cocaine, and
that perception was written into the sentencing laws. But now that
notion is under attack like never before.

Criminologists, doctors and other experts say the differences between
the two forms of the drug were largely exaggerated and do not justify
the way the law comes down 100 times harder on crack.

A push to shrink the disparity in punishments got a boost last month
when reduced federal sentencing guidelines went into effect for crack
offenses. Then, earlier this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission,
which sets guidelines for federal cases, voted to make the reductions
retroactive, allowing about 19,500 inmates, most of them black, to
seek reductions in their crack sentences.

Many think the changes are long overdue. Crack, because it is smoked
and gets into the bloodstream faster than snorted cocaine, produces a
more intense high and is generally considered more addictive than
powdered cocaine.

But experts say that difference does not warrant the 100-to-1
disparity that was written into a 1986 law that set a mandatory
minimum prison term of five years for trafficking in 5 grams of crack,
or less than the amount in two packets of sugar. It would take 100
times as much cocaine to get the same sentence. "There's no scientific
justification to support the current laws," said Dr. Nora Volkow,
director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Suggestions of
racism Many defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say the
lopsided perception of crack versus cocaine is rooted in racism. Four
of every five crack defendants are black, while most powdered-cocaine
defendants are white. While powdered cocaine became the drug of choice
for middle- and upper-income Americans in the 1970s, crack emerged in
the early 1980s as a much cheaper version of the same drug.

In the mid-1980s, powdered cocaine was typically sold by the half-gram
or gram for $50 to $100, while crack was sold as small rocks that cost
as little as $5 to $10. Crack became popular in poor, largely minority
urban areas, and it developed an image as a drug used mostly by
violent, inner-city youths.

"You had politicians manipulating fear, and instead of being seen as a
more direct mode of ingestion of a very old drug, it became a demonic
new substance," said Craig Reinarman, a sociology and legal-studies
professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Sudden spotlight When crack first became popular, an increase in
murders and other crimes was associated with the drug. But the
bloodshed was not necessarily the result of something inherent in crack.

Instead, that violence was typical of what happens when any illegal
drug is introduced and drug dealers with guns compete for new markets,
said Dr. Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations
research at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Although there was already a great deal of concern about crack by
1986, the death of basketball star Len Bias in June of that year is
seen as the pivotal event that spurred Congress to enact the much
tougher sentences for crack offenses.

Bias was a star at the University of Maryland and had just been
drafted by the Boston Celtics when he died. Initial news reports
incorrectly said Bias died after using crack. It wasn't until months
later that one of Bias' teammates testified that he had actually
snorted powdered cocaine the night be died. By that time, the harsh
penalties for crack crimes had already been passed by Congress, with a
push from House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, whose Celtic-fan
constituents were up in arms about Bias' death. "Len Bias' death
symbolized just how terrible this drug was," said Marc Mauer,
executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice
research and advocacy group based in Washington. "Here you had this
promising young man on the verge of a very great basketball career,
and his life is taken away by the evils of crack cocaine."

The crack scare also was fueled by medical professionals who worried
that pregnant women who used the drug would give birth to a generation
of babies with severe neurological damage. But the "crack babies"
theory has been largely debunked.

Dr. Harolyn Belcher, an associate professor of pediatrics at Johns
Hopkins University School of Medicine, said children who were exposed
to crack or powdered cocaine in the uterus may be at slightly higher
risks for language delays and attention deficits, but she said recent
studies have shown that alcohol is far more devastating to the fetus.
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