An Overdue Reform—But Is It Enough?

Friday, March 19th, 2010

In the 1980s, a crack cocaine epidemic swept American cities and had devastating effects on families and communities. Last week, the Senate voted to reform a law conceived in this era of crisis that set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for possession of five ounces of crack. The laws were not changed for powder cocaine, which allow for possession of 500 ounces before this minimum five-year penalty is imposed.

For too long, the 1986 legislation on cocaine sentencing has perpetuated a distortion that crack cocaine is more addictive and harmful than its powder form. And therefore, many alleged, those involved with crack are more likely to act compulsively and commit violent crimes. We now know this to be a myth. True, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are administered differently—and the way they’re prepared impacts the speed of effect—but in essence, they are the same drug. Five grams of crack, approximately one-fifth of an ounce, is in no way equal to 500 grams of powder, which is over a pound.

What has been the ugly reality of this misguided law? For more than two decades, drug users have been arrested with many times more than five grams of powder cocaine and received a less Draconian sentence than those in possession of five grams of crack. This inequity has had a profound impact on inner-city African American communities where crack is more prevalent. As a New York Times blog points out, eight out of 10 crack cocaine defendants are African American, while almost two-thirds of powder cocaine defendants are white.

I can’t argue that some bad people with major criminal intent and affiliation have been apprehended since the law took effect. But the vast majority of those who have been sentenced were not involved with serious criminal activity; in fact, most were using low-level street dealers, not major traffickers. And, in addition to crack defendants themselves, far too many mothers, wives, and friends—who may have had the drug user’s crack stored in their homes—have been charged with conspiracy and brought under this drastic, unfair sentencing net.

As lawmakers in Washington have acknowledged, the new bill is far from perfect. It reduces the discrepancy by raising the amount for minimum mandatory sentencing from five grams of crack cocaine to 28 grams—versus 500 grams of powder cocaine. This is still an inequity of gross proportions. If three friends decided to binge over the weekend, they could consume 28 grams of cocaine—even if it were crack—by Sunday night. Five hundred grams, on the other hand, is enough to keep them high for more than a month—if they didn’t first become paranoid, act out of control, or pass out.

However, while it’s far from appropriate legislation, it will offer some relief to those facing charges in the future. But the bottom line is that prison doesn’t stem the tide of substance abuse. It may de-incentivize minor dealers, but for the average drug user, we as treatment professionals know that it doesn’t change addictive behavior. The more we spread the word that those struggling with the chronic disease of addiction deserve treatment and not jail, the closer we may get to real progress.

David Deitch, Ph.D.
Consultant and former Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House
Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego
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  • Good entry. Just imagine the cost of prison is being ignored while funding for recovery programs is being cut.

  • The draconian drug laws, intended to save communities from the scourge of addiction, left tens of thousands of children without parents to raise them, with predictable consequences. I am glad to see the reforms, but I agree that they are inadequate. We must put our resources behind addressing the causes of addiction–a rehabilitation mindset–rather than toward incarceration–a retribution mindset.