Study of cocaine effects says punishment for dealing, using crack is too harsh Discrepancy in effects exaggerated, doctors say

November 20, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

On the assumption that crack cocaine creates more addicts and promotes more violence than powdered cocaine, federal law for a decade has dealt far more harshly with crack dealers and users than with others caught with more traditional forms of the illicit drug.

Now, two psychologists specializing in drug addiction have determined that the physiological and psychoactive effects of different forms of cocaine are so similar as to make the existing discrepancy in punishment "excessive."

The study, by Dorothy K. Hatsukami at the University of Minnesota and Marian W. Fischman at Columbia University, appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It breaks new ground by posing a medical challenge to the federal sentencing guidelines, which have been criticized over the last decade primarily for jailing more black offenders than white ones.

"The important issue is when possible to try to have science inform policy," Fischman said in an interview, explaining why the researchers undertook the project. "Cocaine is cocaine. Regardless of whether you shoot it up or smoke it or snort it, it has the same stimulant effect."

In their study, in which they examined laboratory experiments and other published studies on cocaine going back 20 years, Fischman and Hatsukami suggest sharply reducing the disparities in cocaine sentencing. But they stopped short of proposing that they be eliminated altogether.

An outbreak of crack-related crime in the 1980s prompted Congress to enact legislation in 1986 that punishes a first-time offender with five years in prison for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine. To receive the same sentence, a first-time offender caught with powdered cocaine would have to possess 500 grams, or more than a pound.

The researchers proposed reducing this 100-to-1 ratio to as little as 2-to-1. That would translate into the same penalty for possessing twice as much powdered cocaine as crack cocaine.

When cocaine was smoked in crack form, the researchers said, it still gave a faster, more intense high than powdered cocaine that was snorted, and therefore has greater potential for abuse.

"Crack cocaine is a lot easier to use, and it is more accessible to a broader population," Hatsukami said in an interview, explaining why she and her colleague believed there should be some difference in sentencing. "We felt that crack cocaine does lead to more use."

Hatsukami and Fischman also concluded that treating offenders made more sense than locking them up.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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