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Tougher crack laws aren't working, study finds
Mpls Star Tribune
November 20, 1996

Erowid Archived Document (Out of Date or Contains Known Errors)
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Gordon Slovut / Star Tribune

University of Minnesota and Columbia University researchers are calling for an easing of tough federal penalties on crack cocaine sales and possession because the mandated longer prison terms have not reduced its abuse and have made cocaine dealing a more violent, murderous business.

In a report published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers point out that cocaine wholesalers have recruited adolescents as street dealers because juveniles are not subject to the long prison terms.

As a result, the trade has become more violent because those juveniles tend to be more violent and impulsive, and are less likely to consider the consequences of what they are doing, said Dorothy Hatsukami, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the study.

They also said there are indications that cocaine addicts who become street dealers tend to have more "deviant" personalities. Their report consisted of a detailed analysis of all the available published studies the researchers could find comparing crack and powdered cocaine, their uses and problems, including physiological and sociological consequences.

Hatsukami's co-author, Marian Fischman, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, said wholesalers and big-time dealers are virtually unaffected by the crack penalties because they handle only powdered cocaine.

The disparity in prison penalties between crack and powdered cocaine convictions is now 100 to 1, Fischman said. First-time offenders must have in their possession or be convicted of selling 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger severe mandatory prison terms.

Federal law mandates a minimum sentence of five years for the sale of 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powdered cocaine.

Crack soars to brain

Powdered and crack cocaine are similar in their psychoactive and physiological effects. However, the possibility of abuse or dependence is greater and the consequences more severe if cocaine is smoked as crack or if it is injected intravenously as powder dissolved in water than when it is snorted, the researchers said.

Hatsukami said that smoked and injected cocaine each reach the brain far more quickly than snorted cocaine, the form traditionally used by mostly middle-class whites. But, she said, it appears that snorting cocaine might be a "gateway" to crack use.

There is no rational reason for treating the various modes of cocaine use as differently as the U.S. government does, she said. Crack offenders have been treated more severely because it has been associated more with street violence, she said.

Reno opposes change

Hatsukami and Fischman recommended that the penalty disparity should not be eliminated. Instead, it should be changed from 100 to 1 to 2 or 3 to 1, they suggested.

But the federal government is unlikely to change its policy.

In the spring of 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission proposed abandoning the tough policy on crack cocaine, urging more flexibility in sentencing. Attorney General Janet Reno opposed the change, and Congress and President Clinton rejected the commission recommendations.

John Russell, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., said Reno hasn't changed her mind.

"We have consistently defended the disparity because, as the attorney general has said, crack has had a much more devastating effect on neighborhoods and families than has powdered cocaine," he said. "She has attributed much more youth violence to crack cocaine as opposed to powdered cocaine."

Minnesota status

The policy in Minnesota, however, is close to the researchers' recommendations. In 1992 the Legislature eliminated a disparity similar to federal sentencing guidelines for offenses involving crack and powdered cocaine.

The action followed a Dec. 13, 1991, state Supreme Court decision upholding a decision by Hennepin County District Judge Pam Alexander, who ruled in 1990 that the state law was unconstitutional. The court said that the disparity in sentencing violated the equal protection clause of the state Constitution. Most crack offenders caught in Minnesota are black and most other cocaine offenders are white.

Despite that ruling and criticisms that the federal guidelines are racist, both Hatsumaki and Fischman said they found no evidence of racism behind the stiffer penalties for crack offenders.

Race not an issue

The two researchers cited a 1993 federal report showing that of the people who said they had used crack in the previous year, 46 percent were white, 36 percent were black and 11 percent were Hispanic.

However, within the racial groups, 0.3 percent of the whites, 1.6 percent of the blacks and 0.6 percent of Hispanics said they had used crack in the previous year, the authors wrote.

The researchers said race is not the determining factor in crack use. Availability and social conditions are the key factors, they said.

Most blacks live in the center of cities, where crack is available, and in poverty, which means crack, which is usually cheaper, is more affordable than powdered cocaine, they said.

An anti-cocaine drug

More than 2 million Americans are dependent on cocaine, according to a federal study. Because no drug has been shown effective in treating cocaine dependency -- as nicotine products are for tobacco smoking and methadone is for heroin -- most treatment involves counseling or self-help groups.

Hatsukami said her group at the university is experimenting with drugs that might make it easier for people to defeat cocaine dependency.

Existing treatment is effective, Hatsukami and Fischman said. If addicted dealers and users were given treatment instead of -- or in addition to -- imprisonment, the tide in the cocaine epidemic might be turned, they said.

Dealers and users who are imprisoned without treatment tend to return to cocaine use when they leave prison, the researchers said.

Crack users are also at increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, at least partly because some trade sex for drugs, the researchers said.

The AIDS virus infection rate among crack users is just as high as it is among intravenous drug users, they said.