Increased Powder Cocaine Sentencing Passes in Senate

From The Drug Policy Foundation*

On Feb. 2, the Senate passed H.R 833 by a margin of 83-14. The bill is principally designed to overhaul consumer bankruptcy laws; however, it contains two unrelated drug policy riders, one of which increases mandatory minimum sentencing for crimes involving powder cocaine.

The cocaine rider seeks to lower the powder cocaine quantities needed to trigger five and ten year mandatory sentences. Under the bill, possession of 50 grams of powder (down from 500) would mandate a five-year sentence and 500 grams of powder (down from 5,000) would mandate a ten-year sentence.

The powder cocaine sentencing amendment, sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mi.), seeks to answer critics who point to a disparity between mandatory prison sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Currently 5 grams of crack triggers a 5 year sentence and 50 grams of crack triggers a 10 year sentence. Critics say the disparity targets minorities and the poor for jail while allowing more upscale users of the costlier powder cocaine to go free. The bill aims at eliminating the disparity by increasing the penalties for powder cocaine rather than lowering the sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine.

The fate of the Senate-passed bill is uncertain. The House has passed its own version of bankruptcy legislation but has not addressed the cocaine issue. The bankruptcy bill, debated for weeks last fall, now goes to conference with the House, which passed its own version last May.

The White House opposes both versions of the bill for reasons not related to the drug policy riders. Previously, the Clinton administration has proposed narrowing the crack/powder disparity by raising the threshold for crack cocaine to 25 grams and lowering it to 250 grams for powder cocaine.

Also attached to the Senate bill is S.486, the anti-methamphetamine legislation restricting drug-related speech [see related story].

Prior to the final vote, the Senate substituted the number of the House version, H.R. 833, for its own bill number, S 625.

The Drug Policy Foundation opposes H.R.833. If the bill is passed in its current form, lower level dealers in powder cocaine will be subject to much longer mandatory minimum sentences. People handling the quantities of cocaine addressed in the amendment are at the bottom of the drug trafficking pipeline. Large scale traffickers organize shipments involving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of grams. The cocaine provision in H.R.833 will further encourage the DEA and the U.S. Department of Justice to focus on local drug traffickers, not the high-level traffickers. The solution to the crack/powder sentencing disparity is incarcerating fewer crack offenders, not incarcerating more powder offenders. This solution has been proposed by Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) in H.R. 1241, the Elimination of the Crack Cocaine Disparate Sentencing Act of 1999 and by Charles Rangel (D-NY) in H.R. 939, the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999.

DPF urges you to contact your Senators and Representative and tell them to support H.R. 833 only if it is stripped of its drug policy riders.

*The Drug Policy Foundation, having merged with The Lindesmith Center is now The Drug Policy Alliance