Aug 23, 1996
Cocaine sentences weighted against blacks
by Gary Webb
San Jose Mercury News
When it comes to cocaine, it isn't just a suspicion that the war on drugs is hammering blacks harder than whites. According to the U.S. Justice Department, it's a fact.
The "main reason" cocaine sentences for blacks are longer than for whites, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1993, is that 83 percent of the people being sent to prison for "crack" trafficking are black "and the average sentence imposed for crack trafficking was twice as long as for trafficking in powdered cocaine."
Even though crack and powder cocaine are the same drug, you have to sell more than six pounds of powder before you face the same jail time as someone who sells one ounce of crack - a 100-to-1 ratio.
That logic has eluded Dr. Robert Byck, a Yale University drug expert, from the moment he discovered the 100-to-1 ratio may have been his inadvertent doing.
In 1986, at the height of an election-year hysteria over crack, Byck was summoned before a U.S. Senate committee to tell what he knew about cocaine smoking.
Byck, a renowned scientist who edited and published Sigmund Freud's cocaine papers, had been studying crack smoking in South America for nearly 10 years, with growing alarm.
Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democrat (and now that state's governor), was pushing for tougher crack laws, and he asked Byck about testimony he had given previously that "some experts" believed crack was 50 times more addictive than powder cocaine. Byck acknowledged some people believed that.
Despite the speculative nature of the figure, Byck said, the addictive factor of 50 was "doubled by people who wanted to get tough on cocaine" and then, for reasons he still finds incomprehensible, turned into a measurement of weight.
The resultant 100-to-1 (powder-vs.-crack) weight ratio, Byck said, was "a fabrication by whoever wrote the law, but not reality. . . . You can't make a number."
Recently, the U.S. Sentencing Commission - a panel of experts created by Congress to be its unbiased adviser in these matters - tried and failed to find a better reason to explain why powder dealers must sell 100 times more cocaine before they get the same mandatory sentence as crack dealers.
The "absence of comprehensive data substantiating this legislative policy is troublesome," it reported last year.
In 1993, cocaine smokers got an average sentence of nearly three years. People who snorted cocaine powder received a little over three months. Nearly all of the long sentences went to blacks, the commission found.
Justice Department researchers estimated that if crack and powder sentences were made equal, "the black-white difference . . . would not only evaporate but would slightly reverse."
Based on such findings, the commission recommended in May 1995 that the cocaine-sentencing laws be equalized, calling the 100-to-1 ratio "a primary cause of the growing disparity between sentences for black and white federal defendants."
Apparently fearful of being seen as soft on drugs, Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to keep the crack laws the same. On Oct. 30, President Clinton signed the bill rejecting the commission's recommendations.