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Differential Sentencing for Possession of Crack and Powder Cocaine

March 18, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

One of the themes that I deal with extensively in my introductory sociology courses is power.  Who has it, who doesn’t?  I struggle with identifying myself as a conflict theorist, but there is one area in which I definitely do come down on the side of conflict theory, and that is in the area of crime and deviance.  The issue that brings this power dynamic the most to the fore is the differential sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  Under current law, the penalties for possession of crack cocaine are 100 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.
Chart of Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Why is this?  To understand this difference, we have to look at the social context of each of these drugs.  During the 1980s both drugs were very popular; what differed was who used the drugs!  Cocaine was the drug of celebrities like Robin Williams and John Belushi as well as of young and powerful yuppies.  Crack, on the other hand, cost much less and its use was prevalent in the inner cities.  Cocaine use got relatively little press, while inner city crack use fomented a moral panic about the “crack epidemic“.  In short, powder cocaine was the drug of those who had power and crack was the drug of those who did not.  Race of course played a role as well: cocaine was the drug of the rich White elite; crack was the drug of poor Blacks in the inner city.  And so there arose a culture of fear around crack cocaine, with the associated legal sanctions.

This appears to be changing, however.  This morning, NPR reported that the U.S. Senate just passed a bill that would reduce the penalties for possession of crack cocaine to just 18 times more severe than the penalties for possession of powder cocaine.  A House of Representatives committee has approved a bill that would treat crack and cocaine identically.  If either of those bills becomes law, it will represent a major shift in the sentencing for drug possession.  What do you think?  Should crack and powder cocaine be treated identically under the eyes of the law, or should there be a difference?  What factors led you to this conclusion?

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