Discrepancies in drug laws magnify race

Freedom New Mexico

Now that the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat has introduced a bill to end the unjustified and counterproductive 100-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, there’s a pretty good chance this 23-year mistake finally will be ended.

Majority Whip Richard Durbin introduced his bill Thursday. Since a similar bill has already passed the House Judiciary Committee, and the Obama administration’s Justice Department supports the change, it should pass.

It can’t come too soon.

In 1986, in the midst of what was seen then as an epidemic of crack cocaine use in inner cities and fueled by the tragic cocaine-overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, Congress decided to get tough on the drug produced by heating and crystallizing powder cocaine.

At the time it was widely believed crack cocaine was more addictive than powder, that it was instantly addictive and invariably caused violent behavior.

So the law passed that year created a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for distribution of five grams of crack. It takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger a five-year sentence.

Since then academic research has established the two forms of the same drug have similar effects on the brain and nervous system. Even if stricter prison sentences were an effective way to control the ill effects of more powerful drugs — not that they are — there is no scientific basis for this disparity.

In addition, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent advisory body, has pointed out on several occasions, this disparity has resulted in a tragically disparate racial impact. In 2006, 82 percent of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine law were black, and 8.8 percent were white.

This has much to do with enforcement policies, which tend to target low-level street dealers and users, who tend to be easier to find and arrest in inner-city neighborhoods than in suburbs.

But the sentencing disparity magnifies the effect.

Reformers concerned with the concept of equal administration of justice have been working to eliminate the disparity. The U.S. Sentencing Commission issued several reports urging such a reform and in 2007 did lower sentences for crack, but authority to eliminate the disparity altogether lies in Congress.

If it were up to us, of course, we would wind down the entire war on (some) drugs and their users, eliminating an expensive failure that has reduced respect for law and triggered untold violence and other associated crimes. Such a sensible step is unlikely for the time being. However, eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine would be a small step toward more equal administration of these dubious laws.