Post originally published on Change.org
Finally some good news for both drug treatment and poverty advocates. On August 3, President Obama signed legislationthat reduces sentencing disparities between persons arrested for the possession of crack and those arrested with cocaine. It took 23 years, but the powers that be are finally realizing what advocates have known all along — crack and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug.
This all began back in the Nixon days with the War on Drugs. All of society’s ills were pinned on the use, abuse, possession, distribution and sale of drugs. Then in the 1980scame a more centralized war on crack cocaine. Cocaine dealers transformed the more expensive powder version into cheaper rocks that produced a quicker high. This new version quickly grew in popularity among users throughout the U.S. Because it was cheaper and easier to get, crack use spread quickly in urban areas and eventually led to the unfair laws that have been in practice for over 20 years.
With the old law, a person arrested for possession of five grams of crack received a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. A person arrested for possession of cocaine would have to possess 500 grams to receive the same sentence. This is known as the “100 to 1 ratio” and it speaks to the inequities of these drug laws. It doesn’t take a math major to realize that this is an unfair disparity. A disparity that advocates have been fighting against for the 23 years that the law has been on the books.
As we’ve said, crack is derived from cocaine, yet it is cheaper and can produce an immediate high since it is often smoked. The real difference between the two, though, is that those arrested for possession of crack tend to be disproportionately African American. Look at the statistics on Drug Enforcement Agency arrestsfor these drugs in fiscal year 2004: 4,648 Caucasians were arrested for powdered cocaine, compared to 2,273 African Americans. For crack cocaine, just 695 Caucasians were arrested compared to 3,161 African Americans.
Compare these numbers to the general statistics of those who use illicit drugs; eight percent of Caucasians and 10 percent of African Americans (it should be noted that clear numbers are hard to come by). Yet somehow the law is enforced in drastically different ways. It is clear that those targeted and ultimately arrested for crack possession are overwhelmingly people of color. Again, it doesn’t take a sociology major to realize the inequity.
One major problem remains; it seems the new law is not going to be applied retroactively. Those who are currently serving unfair sentences will remain in prison for their full terms, though advocates will continue to fight to allow the law to apply to those individuals as well.
Overall, this is a big step in the right direction for drug policy reform. The policies that have been in practice for 23 years have been a complete injustice to so many people, primarily those who live in poverty. Crack and cocaine are both devastating drugs, no doubt about that. However, to sentence some people to extensive prison time and to give others a slap on the wrist when they all have essentially the same drug in their possession speaks more to civil rights than drug abuse. Turns out the War on Drugs has done very little to actually stop drug use and will likely ultimately be regarded as a failure. Anyone who has known someone with an addiction knows that it takes more than “Just Say No” to combat this disease, no matter the choice of drug.
To read the post on Change.org, click here.