End draconian double-standard on cocaine use

February 05, 2007|By Steve Chapman | Steve Chapman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Drunken driving is a serious national problem. So here's a proposal: Wine drinkers would not be arrested for DUI unless they had a blood-alcohol level of 0.10. But anyone drinking hard liquor would be considered intoxicated at 0.02.

I know it sounds nutty, because drunk is drunk, regardless of what you use to get there. But it's no crazier than the federal law on crack cocaine. Two decades after the great crack scare provoked a draconian response, we still treat it as an unparalleled scourge.

Americans who have come of age in the interim might be surprised to know that the smokable version of cocaine once was the moral equivalent of al-Qaida. In 1986, Newsweek called it "the most glamorous, seductive, destructive, dangerous drug on the supersaturated national black market," and quoted one expert voicing what soon became conventional wisdom: "Crack is the most addictive drug known to man right now," producing "almost instantaneous addiction."

One alleged consequence was a proliferation of "crack babies" - children exposed to this form of cocaine in the womb who suffered such severe brain damage that, even as adults, they would have trouble dressing or feeding themselves. Another was an explosion of violence by users.

First lady Nancy Reagan warned of a drug epidemic so vast and devastating that "no one is safe from it."

With the public thus spurred into alarm, Congress responded with stern action. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act treated crack offenses with exceptional ferocity. To get five years in prison, a criminal had to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine, weighing 1.1 pounds, about as much as a typical package of ground beef - or 5 grams of crack, weighing as much as a nickel. To get 10 years, you'd need 5,000 grams of powder (11 pounds) or 50 grams (less than 2 ounces) of crack.

This is what is known as the 100:1 crack/powder disparity, and it implies what was generally believed in 1986: Crack is 100 times more harmful than ordinary cocaine. But we have since learned that crack is not much different.

The most addictive substance known to man? After crack appeared, the number of people using it or any other form of cocaine didn't skyrocket - it fell. The harm to infants, we discovered, was not only greatly exaggerated but indistinguishable from the effects of powder cocaine. The violence turned out to be mostly the result of turf wars among drug dealers, not the drug itself.

On the basic issue - is crack worse? - a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that "the physiological and psychoactive effects of cocaine are similar regardless" of how it's ingested.

That was in 1996. But a decade later, the law still treats crack users and dealers far more harshly than those caught with Cocaine Classic. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in 2003, the average federal sentence for crack offenses was more than 10 years - 3 1/2 years more than the typical punishment for powder crimes.

But the impact has not fallen evenly across the landscape, like a gentle snow. Instead, it has been felt most among African-Americans, who are more prone to use crack than, say, Miss USA or the young George W. Bush. Well-to-do whites tend to prefer snorting cocaine to smoking it.

The ACLU notes that while African-Americans make up 15 percent of the nation's drug users, they constitute 74 percent of those sentenced to prison on drug charges. Before the 1986 law, "the average federal drug sentence for African-Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African-Americans was 49 percent higher."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the federal agency charged with reviewing sentencing policy, has repeatedly urged Congress to reduce the disparity. But so far nothing has happened.

In the past, Democrats have displayed no particular courage on the issue. But thanks to the change of control on Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee is planning to hold hearings on the subject. Even some conservative Republicans are on board for reform.

But change may not come, because there have always been plenty of diehard drug warriors who will defend the status quo. What are they smoking?

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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