Crack vs. Powder Cocaine: One Drug, Two Penalties

For decades, federal crack offenses resulted in far longer prison sentences than powder cocaine offenses, even though there’s little difference between the substances. Two federal laws have reduced this sentencing disparity, but crack and powder cocaine offenses still are not treated equally in federal prosecutions.

By | Updated by Kelly Martin, Attorney

In years past, someone convicted in federal court of possessing crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as someone who possessed 100 times more powder cocaine (also known as coke). You might wonder what the difference is between crack and coke to justify this 100-to-1 ratio, but as it turns out, there's no significant chemical difference between them: They're both forms of cocaine. The huge difference in federal sentencing laws for possession of each form of the same drug had more to do with wrong information and political pressure than with public safety and health. A 2010 federal law fixed some, though not all, of the sentencing differences for crack and cocaine, and a 2018 law took those changes further.

What Is Crack Cocaine?

Crack is made by dissolving powder cocaine (which comes from coca leaves) and baking soda in boiling water and then cutting the resulting paste into small "rocks" after it dries. The rocks are usually sold in single doses to users who smoke them. Because of the inexpensive additive (baking soda), a rock of crack cocaine is cheaper than a similar "dose" of powder cocaine. But the two forms of the drug are chemically the same and affect the user in the same physical and psychological ways. A person smoking crack cocaine (as compared to snorting or injecting powder cocaine) experiences a faster, more intense high simply because smoke in the lungs affects the brain more quickly than other methods of ingestion.

Wrong Information About Crack Led to False Alarms

The harsh sentences for crack came after reports in the mid-80s that the United States was experiencing a "crack epidemic." News outlets reported that crack was more potent, more addictive, and more likely to lead to violence than powder cocaine or other drugs. For example, a 1986 Newsweek article quoted a drug expert who said crack was "the most addictive drug known to man." But within four years, that magazine, and most other media outlets, academics, and law enforcement agencies abandoned that view because no real evidence supported it.

Political Reaction to the False Alarms About Crack

While crack was a hot topic in the news in 1986, Congress held hearings to address the so-called crack epidemic. At the hearings, several senators recited the unscientific (and later discredited) claims about the heightened dangers of crack and its impact on urban communities. The result was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which severely penalized crack cocaine offenses, and was arguably one of the most unjustified sentencing schemes ever created in the United States.

Harsh Sentences for Crack: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams (or just a few rocks) of crack cocaine. (21 U.S.C. § 841 (2006).) "Mandatory minimum" means just what it says: A conviction for possessing five grams of crack required at least five years in federal prison, even if it was the person's first offense. By contrast, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, people arrested for powder cocaine had to possess 100 times more than that (500 grams, or over a pound) to face a five-year mandatory minimum. This 100-to-1 ratio was not based on evidence: During the debate on the Act, Congress simply considered various arbitrary ratios (including 20-to-1) and settled on the 100-to-1 ratio, with no evidence to support that figure.

Unfair Impact on Black People

Crack cocaine's lower price, ease of production, and manner of distribution (small quantities sold to individuals for personal use) made it widely accessible in poor, urban communities, which included many Black communities. Although white people also used crack, police efforts to control crack focused mainly on urban Black communities, in part because it was easier; drug deals in those communities usually happened in public on the street, not in private residences as in white communities. They also happened more often, because, unlike people who have the money to stock up on their drug supply, lower-income people can afford only one dose at a time, and each drug deal carries a risk of arrest. The increase in arrests of Black people and the increase in sentences for crack meant that Black people went to prison for cocaine offenses far more often and much longer than white people, even though white people used cocaine (both powder and crack) more than Black people did.

Reconsideration of Sentencing for Crack vs. Coke

Many legislators who had voted for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act became concerned that most defendants convicted of crack possession were Black, while most defendants in powder cocaine possession cases were white or Latino. And the media (along with the general public) began to note the lack of scientific evidence justifying the vastly different treatment of the two forms of the same drug. Although it took a long time, Congress finally passed legislation in 2010 to address the problem.

Less Severe Sentences Under the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for possession of five grams of crack, and increased the amount required to trigger mandatory sentencing. (21 U.S.C. § § 841, 844.) The Act changed the ratio of crack to powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, for purposes of imposing the same sentence for possession of each drug. So, the federal law still imposes a harsher sentence for crack than for coke, but the difference is now less severe.

The Fair Sentencing Act applied only to sentences imposed after 2010, which meant that people sentenced for crack offenses before then were stuck with unfairly long sentences. In 2018, The First Step Act fixed this by allowing people sentenced before 2010 to ask a judge to reduce their sentences.

On the state level, a minority of the states also treated crack and cocaine differently for purposes of sentencing. After the Fair Sentencing Act, some of these states changed that practice. For example, in 2014, California passed the California Fair Sentencing Act, which eliminated the sentencing differences for crack and powder cocaine in state cases.

Talk with a Lawyer

Regardless of changes in the law, a charge involving crack or coke is very serious. If you face drug charges, you should see a lawyer immediately. Only an experienced criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with the law in your state (or with federal law if the charges are federal) can advise you about the strength of the case against you and assess whether any defenses apply. And if you or someone you know might benefit from the changes in federal sentencing described above, consider talking with a criminal defense lawyer who practices in the federal courts in your area. You'll need the help of an attorney if you want to reduce a federal sentence.

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