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.”
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.
Because most offenders jailed for crack have been black, the disparity has been attacked largely on racial grounds.
According to a government study of illicit drug use nationwide, in 1993, 88.3 percent of federal defendants convicted of selling crack were black. By contrast, blacks accounted for only 27 percent of those convicted of selling powdered cocaine.