Pubdate: Tue, 25 Dec 2007
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2007 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Denise Lavoie, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States - News)


BOSTON - During some of the bloodiest years of the drug wars of the 
1980s, crack was seen as far more dangerous than powder 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 at least 19,500 inmates, mostly 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 powder cocaine.

100-to-1 disparity

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.

Many defense attorneys and civil rights advocates say the lopsided 
perception of crack vs. cocaine is rooted in racism. Four out of 
every five crack defendants are black, while most powder-cocaine 
defendants are white.

While powder 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.

Cost differences

In the mid-1980s, powder 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-Santa Cruz 
who edited the 1997 book "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social 
Justice" about the rise of crack in the 1980s.

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

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

Len Bias' death

Although there already was 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 snorted 
cocaine the night he 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.

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 John 
Hopkins University School of Medicine, said there is no evidence that 
crack is biologically more harmful than powder cocaine to the fetus 
or developing child.

"If I had a well-to-do family whose wife was at home snorting coke 
vs. someone who is a mother who is out on the street using crack, the 
babies would look very similar," Belcher said.

Belcher said children who were exposed to crack or powder 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.

The reductions in the recommended sentences for crack offenses went 
into effect Nov. 1, but the guidelines do not affect the minimum 
mandatory sentences, which only Congress can change.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom