Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

December 25, 2007 - News & Observer (NC)

Science Exposes Fallacies Behind Crack Laws

By Denise Lavoie

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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 about 19,500 inmates, most of them 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.

Suggestions Of Racism

Many defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say the lopsided perception of crack versus cocaine is rooted in racism. Four 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.

Sudden Spotlight

When crack first became popular, an increase in murders and other crimes was associated with the drug. But the bloodshed was not necessarily the result of something inherent in crack.

Instead, that violence was typical of 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 powdered 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 also was 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 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 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.

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact