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March 5, 2007 - Daytona Beach News-Journal (FL)

Column: Cracked Justice

Absurd, Racist Disparities In Drug Sentencing

By Lyda Longa, Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Cocaine is a fine white powder that, when injected, inhaled or smoked, causes a euphoric high for about 30 minutes.

A 25 to 150 milligram dose usually produces the desired effect.

The street price of cocaine, after its high of $500 per gram in the early 1980s, has fluctuated between $120 and $190 per gram for the last dozen years, so one "hit" of powder cocaine costs the user between $3 and $28, depending on dosage and purity.

Crack is a cocaine spinoff.

Cocaine is "cooked" with ammonia or baking soda and water to separate the powder's salts from its purer cocaine "base." Little rocks are created that can then be smoked.

As the rocks are smoked, they make the tiny crackling sound that gives the drug its nickname. It takes about one gram of powder cocaine to produce a 900 milligram rock of crack.

The rock usually is broken into smaller pieces. A 100 milligram rock, which costs from $10 to $25, can produce one, maybe two good inhalations. When smoked, it produces a much faster, more intense high than when using cocaine, because it goes straight into the lungs.

But the high is much briefer, too -- five, 10 minutes, tops. Crack became popular in the 1980s because of its rapid effects and its illusion of cheapness.

In fact, taking the midrange street-price, the same amount of crack is slightly more expensive than an equal amount of cocaine, and produces one-third the length of the high. Only the intensity is in crack's favor.

Those details are relevant because they help illuminate, but not explain, the federal government's senseless, racist laws regarding cocaine and crack users.

A user arrested and convicted for possessing at least 500 grams of cocaine will face an automatic five-year prison sentence. For a crack user, the automatic five-year sentence is triggered from possession of just 5 grams of crack. (The average crack-related federal sentence is actually just under 11 years -- longer than the 79-month average federal sentence for rape.) Why the disparity?

Here's another illuminating fact: As of 2002, 64 percent of crack users were black or Hispanic. Just 34 percent were white.

Among powder cocaine users, just 33 percent were black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 48 percent white.

The race-based disparity could not be more obvious when it comes to sentencing. But so go the inanities of the "war on drugs." They make you wonder who's really high on what.

Senseless crack and cocaine federal sentencing guidelines date back to 1986, following several years of press and politicians sensationalizing a crack "epidemic."

There were stories of "crack babies" born to mothers abusing the drug (babies born to drug-addicted mothers always have been a problem, but the effects of poverty, malnutrition, alcohol and tobacco smoking during pregnancy exert a far greater medical and social toll on babies than crack). There were tales of crack's wildly addictive nature.

There still are, as federal government propaganda claims crack deserves stricter punishment because it's more addictive than cocaine.

Yet the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency, puts the number of crack users (not addicts) at about 567,000, and the number of cocaine users at almost four times that. Crack or cocaine addiction among high school students is negligible. Still, the hysteria carries on, with occasional reality checks.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional. The mandatory version of the guidelines had a devastating effect on first-time drug offenders.

From 2005 on, the guidelines only could be used on an advisory basis.

Killed, too, was the so-called Feeney Amendment -- a draconian measure by U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Orlando, that forbade judges from reducing sentences in some cases. But the Supreme Court did not address the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

Nor did it eliminate still pernicious segments of the Feeney Amendment, including a requirement that judges' sentences, accompanied by judges' names, be reported to Congress and the Attorney General, thus opening the door to intimidation of the judiciary.

On all these counts, Congress has corrective work to do -- both to fix an unjust disparity and an unjust sentencing law, and to dispel the kind of drug-war myths that perpetuate the absurd.

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