How on earth did legal offenses related to two versions of the same drug come to have such different punishments? That’s the situation in the United States with crack and cocaine. And the short answer to that question is: Racism. Of course.
The problem began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, inspired by University of Maryland star basketball player Len Bias, who overdosed the same night that the Boston Celtics picked him in the NBA draft.
Under these laws, the possession of five grams of crack had a minimum penalty of five years in federal prison — the same sentence one received for the possession of 500 grams of cocaine. (Yes, you read that correctly!) The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 brought that disparity down from a 100-to-1 differential to an 18-to-1 ratio, which is still obviously imbalanced and thus unfair.
Thankfully, this past Tuesday, a group US Congress members introduced a bill that will begin to correct this 35-year-old law. The Eliminating Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, also known as the EQUAL Act, would reduce sentencing for crack-related offenses to that of cocaine in its non-base form.
A bill by the same name was introduced by Senators Corey Booker and Dick Durbin, which has been sitting in the judiciary committee’s docket since late January.
Both pieces of legislation would retroactively apply to past offenses.
An ACLU report released on the 20th anniversary of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act states, “it has become clear that there is no scientific or penological justification” for the differences in penalties for crack and cocaine-related crimes. The report found that the US Sentencing Commission has “concluded that crack is not appreciably different from powder cocaine in either its chemical composition or the physical reaction of its users.”
One difference between the two drugs are their price points. Crack’s vastly lower street value means that it’s more readily available in poorer urban neighborhoods, which tend to be populated by Black and Latino communities — or at least, that’s where law enforcement has historically gone fishing for arrests.
That type of policing is abusive because drug use rates have been statistically proven to be consistent across race and ethnicity, and studies have shown that people tend to buy drugs from dealers of their own race. And yet, a 2016 study showed that over half of the people imprisoned in the United States for drug-related offenses were Black or Latino — groups that comprise only 32 percent of the population.
Hopefully, the EQUAL Act will help change this gross inequity. The bill was introduced by a bipartisan coalition of Democrat Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Bobby Scott, and Republicans Kelly Armstrong and Don Bacon.
“These laws did nothing to change behaviors and only wasted taxpayer money and discriminated against minorities,” said Scott in a press statement.
“The EQUAL Act will help reverse engineer the tragic legacy of the failed war on drugs which has devastated lives, families and communities,” stated Jeffries, who also authored the First Step Act, which former President Trump signed into effect in 2018 and which looks to reduce the country’s vast federal prison population.
Jeffries continued, “Crack cocaine has historically been used in inner-city communities and powder cocaine in affluent neighborhoods and the suburbs. Put simply, the dividing line is race and geography.”