Congress

Unjust Weights

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Take six grams of cocaine, add some water and baking soda, and pop it in the microwave. Now you have crack. What's the difference? Pharmacologically, none. Legally, at least four years. Federal law imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years (with no parole) for possession of five grams or more of crack by a first-time offender. To get the same penalty for cocaine powder, you'd need half a kilo.

This 100-to-1 disparity, which Congress created at the height of the crack panic in the 1980s, has often been criticized as unjust, especially since crack defendants are overwhelmingly black, while powder defendants are mostly white and Hispanic. In 1995 the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended that the distinction be eliminated, a proposal that was rejected by Congress and the White House. Now two psychologists specializing in addiction, the University of Minnesota's Dorothy K. Hatsukami and Columbia University's Marian Fischman, have joined the critics with an article in the November 20 Journal of the American Medical Association.

After reviewing two decades of research comparing smoked and snorted cocaine, Hatsukami and Fischman concluded that the evidence does not justify the notion that crack is 100 times worse than cocaine powder. Nevertheless, they found that crack is more addictive, since smoking cocaine (like injecting it) produces a faster, more intense, and shorter high than snorting it. That, they say, justifies somewhat harsher penalties. "We do not want to see an end to the differential," Hatsukami told UPI, "but we think that it should be 2 or 3 to 1, not 100 to 1."