The Court on Crack

by Molly Kenney

The Supreme Court’s decision, announced last week, to hear Kimbrough v. U.S. brings to public attention the ludicrous federal law on cocaine distribution. This law, created in the late 1980s to combat a surge in drug use and drug-related deaths, imposes equal prison sentences of five years for sellers of five grams of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powder cocaine. While the case does not involve the constitutionality of the law and its mandatory minimums, the Court’s consideration of the case shows judicial doubt about the law. Thus begins the much-needed erosion of this double standard.

The Washington Post reported that according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81.8 percent of crack cocaine dealing convicts are black. Crack cocaine is cheaper than powder and easier to buy on the streets, making it a popular drug in inner cities. Powder cocaine is far more expensive than crack and has had an easier time finding its way to the suburbs. By the way, only 27 percent of convicted dealers selling powder cocaine are African-American. Powder cocaine has been the cocaine of celebrities and the president, America’s real role models, and pop culture glamour since long before Eric Clapton sang his hit about the drug.*

One very comprehensive psychopharmacology class taught me that cocaine is cocaine in any form, and critics of the federal law agree. Cocaine has the same effect on the body in either form, but proponents of the law and warhawks in America’s War on Drugs proclaim the especially harmful effects of crack cocaine. Even if this fallacy was correct, busting small-time users and dealers for crack and slapping them with the same sentence as someone carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine (all signs point to a kingpin or trafficker) seems counter-intuitive. The biggest threat in this whole military theatre is the cartels and major suppliers, and the main objective should be eliminating them. Locking up impoverished addicts from the inner cities for five years for one stash is unfair when compared to the big powder distributors, but it’s also just bad policy — and I’m sure the racial composition of the sentencing statistics is just a coincidence.

It’s unlikely that this conservative Court will give judges the green light to sentence more equitably (read: be soft on crime), largely because allowing judges to ignore mandatory minimums invalidates them. However, mobilization for the arguments before the Court should provide publicity and spur discussion on this flawed federal law. Meanwhile, the White House, which asked the Court not to hear Kimbrough, will surely take a strong anti-crack stance. Just another chance for the president to strike a pose, while upholding injustice.

*Although Eric Clapton made a hit of the song "Cocaine," it was penned by J.J. Cale.

For other pieces related to the War on Drugs, please see:

(The photo of confiscated cocaine packets from a Mexican cartel is via the Drug Enforcement Administration — DEA — and the photo is in the public domain.)

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James said...

You sure that wasn't your personal stash? :)

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