NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Cocaine Laws Have a Racial Aspect

January 14, 2002

Experts in the field of illegal drug laws have long been aware of a racial bias in mandatory sentences for cocaine possession. Now two conservative Republican senators -- Alabama's Jeff Sessions and Utah's Orrin Hatch -- are trying to strengthen the sentencing structure by making it more rational and effective.

  • Under current federal law, someone caught with five grams of crack cocaine gets a certain five-year sentence -- while someone would have to be in possession of 500 grams of the white, powdered cocaine to trigger the same mandatory prison time.
  • Critics consider that a racial injustice, since crack is more popular in black communities -- while the powdered form is more common among white, suburban users.
  • A bill submitted by the two Republicans would raise the crack trigger amount to 20 grams, and lower the powder amount to 400 grams -- or from a 100-to-1 ratio to 20-to-1.
  • During the past decade, medical studies have determined that there is little psychological difference between crack and powder cocaine usage -- thereby undercutting arguments for stiffer penalties for crack use.

The proportion and number of inmates serving time for federal drug convictions has mushroomed since 1986, when Congress enacted a number of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes -- including those involving crack cocaine.

Source: Gary Fields, "Bill Addresses Disparity in Cocaine Laws," Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2002.



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