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The Effect of Drug Laws on Crack and Powder Cocaine on African Americans


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The 1970s saw an increased popularity in cocaine use. Although President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1972, overall American sentiment toward cocaine in the 1970s was rather indifferent. A 1977 Newsweek article reflected this feeling: “taken in moderation, cocaine probably causes no significant mental or physical damage and a number of researchers have concluded that it can be safer than liquor and cigarettes when used discriminately.” Many viewed the drug as the “marijuana of the 1970s” and relatively few felt that cocaine posed any real threat. Cocaine, an extremely expensive drug at the time, was often associated with ambitious young businessmen and glamorous celebrities, which helped to fuel its popularity, as well as propagate the notion that cocaine was a harmless and enjoyable drug.
Freebase cocaine, the purified form of powder cocaine, was also used throughout the 1970s, although it enjoyed much less popularity. As with powder cocaine, the users of freebase tended to be rich, middle class and white. Freebase was produced by “cooking” powder cocaine in a number of steps, one of which included ether, a highly combustible liquid. The resulting process was extremely pure, but never became particularly widespread due to the tricky process to make it and the danger of fire and explosion.
The simplicity of making crack was a major factor that led to crystallized cocaine becoming more widespread in the 1980s. Powder cocaine use declined in popularity in the middle class in the 1980s. Cocaine supply also increased, reducing the price. Crack provided an intense high very quickly for $5 or $10. For sellers, crack was a lucrative product – easy to make and desired by a huge consumer base for whom powder cocaine had previously been inaccessibly expensive. The association of crack with poor, urban areas where it was sold, and the violence connected with the rapid expansion of the crack market, changed the American perception of cocaine. From 1986 to 1992 there was an explosion of news coverage of crack and fear of an ‘epidemic’ of drug use in the ghettos.
Newsweek, almost ten years after it printed the article claiming cocaine was harmless, published a series of articles about the dangers and extremely addictive qualities of crack and cocaine. Myths of the ‘crack baby’ and the drug crazed, violent ‘crack head’ were born and, despite their limited foundation in reality, they endure as the image of crack users.
By the mid-1980s, Americans no longer tolerated cocaine as a benign, recreational drug. As a result, the Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, setting harsh punishments for those found trafficking in or possession of cocaine or crack. Many states followed suit, setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations, which vary in severity depending on the state. Although cocaine use has decreased since the 1980s, crack use is at about its late 1980s level (NSDUH). Popularly, use of the drug is still considered extremely dangerous and socially unacceptable.

The sentencing disparity between convictions for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is discriminatory toward African-Americans. Federal policy is responsible for this disparity, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and Public Law 104-38 (Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Amendment, Disapproval) being the most significant contributors. Differences in the consumption and marketing patterns of crack cocaine and powder cocaine do not justify stiffer penalties. Ironically, the inequitable sentencing of African-Americans has done little to remedy the problem of cocaine trafficking in the United States. Americans believe in a system of justice where all individuals are treated fairly under the law. But mandatory minimum sentencing laws prohibit judges from considering all the facts in a criminal case when determining sentences. The result is one-size-fits-all justice that ignores defendants' life circumstances, criminal history and role in the offense.
The 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts established excessive mandatory penalties for crack cocaine that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses and created drastically different penalty structures for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine, which are pharmacologically identical substances. The law has diverted precious resources away from prevention and treatment for drug users and devastated communities ripped apart by incarceration.
Today a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of harsh crack cocaine mandatory sentences has emerged among advocates, policymakers, judges and the United States Sentencing Commission.

Government officials justify the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine based on the devastating effect that the latter drug exerts at the community level. According to testimony at a recent Congressional hearing, "We the public's perceptions were that the federal government had been too soft on drugs and that swift action was warranted.
Crack houses are established as bases of operation and to facilitate rapid manufacture of the drug. Crack and the Evolution of Anti-Drug Policy. Public Law 1 4-38. In New York City, the base forms of cocaine gained popularity by word-of-mouth: "Local lore, a mixture of fact and fantasy, touted base as being less harmful than the acid form.
Single doses can be sold on the streets for as little as rating 5 to rating 2 .
For example, an ounce of powder cocaine purchased for rating 6 can be converted into crack cocaine and sold for rating 3,. Although it takes a greater quantity of powder to create the same level of high as crack, both drugs induce a similar narcotic effect in the addict.
Works CitedBelenko, Steven.

In the fifth stage, drug usage increases sharply. Approximately 8 percent of those convicted of possession of crack cocaine were black, fewer than 1 percent white, and fewer than 8 percent Hispanic. Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy.
In response to public protest regarding sentencing disparities, Congressional hearings were held to amend federal policy on sentencing for crack cocaine. Crack, which is smoked rather than snorted, produces an intense, short-lived high.
Besides, the use of powder cocaine is more prevalent in society than the use of crack cocaine. Congress 63). The affordability of crack cocaine has made it readily available to low-income segments of society, whereas mostly those who are affluent use powder cocaine.
In enacting such strict legislation, politicians pointed to the threat to America's existence posed by a perceived widespread epidemic of drugs. The public's concerns reached the ears of the politicians, particularly because 1986 was an election year.
Committee on the Judiciary.
The Act emphasized punishment and social control: “Most of the Federal funding authorized under the 1986 act went to law enforcement, prisons, interdiction, and other supply reduction efforts, rather than treatment or prevention" (Belenko 14).
Congress 123-124). The defendant's sentence of a mandatory 13 years in prison was based almost entirely on the quantity of crack cocaine in his possession, whereas, if only the powder drug had been found, he would have been sentenced to only five years. The Rise of Crack and Ice: Experiences in Three Locales. The U. S.
1995.Pope, Victoria. The result was the 1986Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The street-based marketing pattern of crack cocaine dealing marks the most important difference between crack and powder, and this aspect federal policy, though misguided, has sought to rectify. Powder cocaine can be easily converted to crack with the addition of common baking soda, once taken through a heating and cooling process.
Crack can be broken down and packaged into small quantities for distribution. When crack dealing invades a community, a cycle of lawlessness develops. Differences in the consumption and marketing patterns of crack cocaine and powder cocaine do not justify stiffer penalties. Cong. In the first stage, use is confined to small, isolated communities or subcultures.
Conversely, convictions for possession of powder cocaine were almost evenly divided between blacks, whites, and Hispanics (U. S. In the case of crack cocaine trafficking, this is the stage where crack houses began to emerge: "Although it is unclear to what extent the original creation of crack reflected a deliberate marketing ploy by the traffickers to expand cocaine consumption, that was its effect"(Stares 33).
Federal penalties were established for serious crack offenses. As one researcher in Harlem notes, "Cocaine and crack. Their fear was that the crack epidemic would spread to suburban locales: “Perhaps because it was initially confined to minority poor urban areas, tales of violent crackheads caused much more alarm among the middle class"(Belenko 1 ). Federal policy is responsible for this disparity, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and Public Law 1 4-38 (Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Amendment, Disapproval) being the most significant contributors. Congress 129).
The middle class was terrified by the highly addictive qualities attributed to crack.
As one expert witness testified, "These African-Americans are subject to serving long mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession of small amounts of crack cocaine, while those typically Caucasian first time offenders convicted of possession of a much greater quantity of cocaine powder are subject to minimal sentences (even probation)" (U. S. The sentencing disparity between convictions for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is discriminatory toward African-Americans. An example in Congressional testimony is given of a black defendant who submitted to a voluntary police search of his premises and was found in possession of a minuscule amount of crack cocaine and a large amount of powder cocaine.
. Thus, an elaborate underground economy can quickly flourish, bringing in millions of dollars of profit. Second or third offenders could receive sentences just as heavy for possession of as little as three or even one gram of the substance. Government officials justify the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine based on the devastating effect that the latter drug exerts at the community level. Dealers can easily recruit "runners," young boys from the local community to market the crack on the streets. In the sixth stage, drug usage becomes an epidemic, severely impacting the resources of public agencies and health systems.
In the fourth stage, drug dealers capitalize on the opportunity to enhance profits. Department of Justice has identified seven distinct stages in the spread of a new drug or drug form. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Chaiken, Marcia.
Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993.Bourgois, Philippe.
Critics of the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine contend that the substances are basically the same, only indifferent form.
Crack cocaine is purported to be 1 times stronger than powder cocaine. Granted, the street marketing of crack in low-income neighborhoods is associated with violent activity, but sentence adjustments should then be based solely on the use of weapons or violence, rather than determined by the type of drug being trafficking.
During the early 199 s, the African-American community began to feel the negative effects of federal sentencing policy for crack cocaine. Statistics on convictions in federal courts by race became public knowledge, and the disparity was startling. In the seventh stage, the media begins reporting on the drug, alerting the attention of the public.
News reports about crack cocaine did not begin appearing with frequency until late 1985.
"Crack Invades a Small Town.
" U. S. Laws were also enacted for the federal death penalty for drug-related murders.
The enormous profits from crack cocaine prove an irresistible lure for some low-income communities, thus minimizing the effect of stiff penalties for its possession. Some sources listed the percentage of black defendants sentenced for crack cocaine offenses in the federal system as high as 92 percent. Law enforcement officials often find themselves outgunned by the superior firepower of their youthful adversaries. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1996.
U. S. Washington: GPO, 1993, March. Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Amendment, Disapproval. A switch to various types of drugs or preparations characterizes progression to the second stage.
The passage of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act called for even stiffer penalties for drug crimes. House. It was said to induce euphoria without unpleasant side effects" (Chaiken 3). For instance, crack cocaine did not emerge in New York City until the early 198 s, accompanied by the decline of such popular drugs as heroin and PCP.
As Public Law 1 4-38reads, "The sentence imposed for trafficking in a quantity of crack cocaine should generally exceed the sentence imposed for trafficking in a like quantity of powder cocaine" (Federal Sentencing Guidelines 1 9 STAT. A veritable "War on Drugs “was initiated. Retail drug sales easily outcompete other income-generating opportunities, whether legal or illegal" (Bourgois 3). Dealers who are apprehended and imprisoned are quickly replaced with eager young recruits.
Brazen drug trafficking on street corners terrorizes neighborhood residents. 1 4th Cong., 1st sess. Congress, however, chose not to reduce the sentencing disparity, reaffirming its previous stance that differences between crack and powder cocaine justified stiffer penalties.
In the third stage, local opinion favors a particular drug preparation. Although the defendant in this case was a known drug dealer, existing federal policy made no distinction between trafficking and possession.
News & World Report 22 April 1996: 34-44.Stares, Paul. Once a strictly urban phenomenon, crack has now developed into a dilemma for many small towns as well: "A national survey of police chiefs by pollster Peter Hart found that 47 percent of small-town chiefs consider drugs and extremely serious ‘or 'quite serious' problem" (Pope 37). Global Habit.
In low-income communities, crack cocaine use can quickly escalate into epidemic proportions. Also, no evidence in the scientific literature supports the contention that crack cocaine usage is linked with more violence than the use of powder cocaine. Even first-time offenders convicted of possession of as little as five grams of crack base substance could be sentenced to five to2 years in prison. Washington: GPO, 1995, June29.
6 The intensity of the high creates a greater psychological dependence on crack than experienced by users of powder cocaine. According to testimony at a recent Congressional hearing, "We believe that sound drug sentencing policy should reflect a reasoned judgment as to the relative harms to our society of each illicit substance" (U.S. By 1986, the stage had been set for current federal policy on crack cocaine sentencing.

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