Pubdate: Tue, 25 Dec 2007
Source: Intelligencer, The (PA)
Copyright: 2007 Calkins Newspapers. Inc.
Author: Denise Lavoie, The Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


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 some 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 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.

Many defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say the lopsided
perception of crack versus cocaine is rooted in racism. Four out 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
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 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 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 was also 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 powdered cocaine to the fetus
or developing child.

"If I had a well-to-do family whose wife was at home snorting coke
versus 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 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.

John Steer, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said the
commission first said in 1995 that the disparate punishments for crack
and powdered cocaine defendants were not justified.

"The bottom-line conclusion is that for punishment purposes, they
should be treated much more similarly than they are now. That's based
upon the fact that in the real world, they are not as different
overall as was initially thought," Steer said.

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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