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Lawmakers Seek To Reduce Or Eliminate Sentencing Disparities Between Crack Cocaine And Powder Cocaine Cases


If you are younger than the oldest millennials, “crack cocaine” sounds more like a punchline than a drug of which you have a reasonable fear.  The younger generations think of crack as a MacGuffin in action movies rather than a drug that causes fatal overdoses.  Who is afraid of crack when there is heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl?  Despite this, federal courts still impose sentences for crack cocaine possession as if it were the scariest drug ever synthesized.  As it stands, the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a quantity of crack cocaine that can fit comfortably in your pocket or wallet, and which you could conceivably share with only as many friends as can fit in your car is the same as the sentence for possession of enough powder cocaine to fuel a Star Island New Year’s Eve party.  Here, our Miami drug crimes defense lawyer explains how the laws on crack cocaine became so draconian and the proposed legislation that could change that.

Is Crack Cocaine That Much Worse Than Powder?

It’s summer vacation, and every day, as soon as your parents leave for work, you and your sister walk to the gas station to get your fix of sugary snacks.  Your sister always gets a bag of pixie sticks; they’re dirt cheap, and she likes the sound of the powder pouring into her mouth.  You prefer Sweet Tarts, because they have a satisfying crunch, and depending on your mood, you can either maneuver each piece to the top of the foil tube or unwrap the tube to remove each piece, so that at the end of the day, you are left with a shapely coil of foil.  Which of you is the bigger fiend?  Isn’t it all just sugar with artificial colors and sour flavors?

Similarly, it turns out that your brain on crack is about the same as your brain on powder cocaine; the only difference between them is the media stereotypes associated with them.  People tend to think of powder cocaine that added sparkle to Studio 54 and the Blues Brothers; powder cocaine gave us Rumours and Hotel California.  Thanks in no small part to the news media and shows like Miami Vice, people associated crack cocaine with violence.  The effects of cocaine on the body are the same, whether it is smoked or snorted.

A History of Sentencing Disparities for Cocaine Convictions

In the 1980s, crack cocaine was a focus of Ronald Reagan’s drug policies.  The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set the sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine at a 100 to 1 ratio, meaning that the punishment for possessing more than a pound of powder cocaine was the same as the penalty for possessing five grams of crack.  Combined with an increase in mandatory minimum sentences and three strikes laws into the 1990s, the draconian punishments for crack cocaine contributed to mass incarceration.  Furthermore, a disproportionate number of crack cocaine cases in the 1980s involved Black defendants, although Black Americans accounted for only one third of crack users during this period.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the sentencing ratio to 18 to 1, but mandatory minimum sentences remain in effect.  In federal cocaine possession cases, judges must impose at least the mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for defendants convicted of possessing 28 grams of crack cocaine, but this same sentence applies to defendants convicted of possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The EQUAL Act and a Possible Bipartisan Deal

Reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses has been a priority of some lawmakers in recent years, most of them belonging to the Democratic Party.  The EQUAL Act, which is currently under consideration in the Senate, seeks to sentence powder cocaine cases and crack cocaine cases on a 1 to 1 ratio.  While reducing the sentencing disparity has some bipartisan support, the bill is more likely to get more Republican support if it reduces the disparity without eliminating it entirely.  The two parties are currently negotiating a deal that would reduce the sentencing disparity to 2.5 to 1.  Sen. Chuck Grassley says that the recidivism rate is much higher among people convicted for possession of crack than for possession of powder cocaine; Liz Komar of the Sentencing Project attributes this to differences in policing rather than in actual rates of drug use.

Contact Our Drug Crimes Defense Attorneys

A South Florida criminal defense lawyer can help you if you are facing charges for possession of cocaine or another controlled substance.  Contact Ratzan & Faccidomo in Miami, Florida for a free, confidential consultation about your case.



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