It’s Insane: The Social Disparities Between Crack and Cocaine

It’s Insane: The Social Disparities Between Crack and Cocaine

The punishment difference between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine exposes an unjust feature in the American Justice system, a system that was built to be the epitome of justice.

Ever wonder what the difference is between crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine? Aside from being cheaper, more potent, and predominantly used by lower-class minorities, crack will land you a prison sentence that is 100 times greater in comparison to cocaine. That’s right, in the US, a person found holding 500 grams of powder cocaine – which is A LOT of cocaine – would face a five-year mandatory minimum sentence; crack offenders would have to be in possession of a mere 5 grams to face the same obligatory sentence.

Why is that?

Good question! Two decades ago, US President Ronald Regan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, making penalties for possession of crack-cocaine offenses 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine. This punitive response to crack stemmed from the higher levels of crime commonly associated with its users, a conclusion that was only reiterated in the 1994 study of 200 crack addicts, which found that “daily use of crack correlated more with illicit criminal activities” than the non-user demographic. Further studies have found crack-cocaine to be more powerful, addictive, and physically harmful in comparison to powder cocaine, all of which has come to support the drastic differences in punishment.

So what’s the problem?

In spite of arguments upholding sentencing differences between crack and powder-cocaine, proponents against such disparities need only to point at the law’s function, that is, the social discrimination intrinsic within its application. In nature of being more pure, powder cocaine is predominantly used by affluent, upper-class whites and carries a hefty price tag per gram in comparison to crack, which is less refined and less expensive to produce and thus costs less to purchase, which sadly appeals to lower-class addicts. This being said, any disparities between the two will inherently affect two separate classes of addicts – one rich and one poor.

Who else is affected?

Well, lets look at the data. As stated in the US Federal Court of Appeals case, United States v. Blewett, of the 30,000 federal prisoners serving crack-cocaine sentences in 2011, more than 80 percent were black – which is crazy! This percentage was so appalling that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, has regarded the crack-cocaine disparity as “one of the most notorious symbols of racial discrimination in our modern criminal justice system”. In response to the apparent social and racial discrimination, the Fair Sentencing Act was drafted in 2010 – more than 2 decades after the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 76’ – to decrease the respective sentencing inequalities from 100:1 to 18:1; this is to say that 18 grams of powder cocaine will now render the same punishment as 1 gram of crack cocaine.

So, now it’s fair!

Not exactly. Many argue that the current 18:1 ratio is an outdated compromise that still reflects the vast inequalities found within the United States’ Justice System. According to those who follow this line of argumentation, the only fair ratio is 1:1 and the fight will continue until such a ratio is reached; of course, there are steps being taken in this direction. For example, in 2011 the US Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act-guidelines to individuals sentenced before the law was enacted, a decision that may not affect the criticized 18:1 ratio, but certainly brings justice to those who received distasteful prison sentences in the past. Ultimately, further action to decrease the 18:1 ratio is still needed, action that is fostered through the out-cries of victims and proponents against such punitive agendas. I suppose it is for this reason I write today, to bring justice to those affected by injustice.



The disparity isn't "insane", but simply racist, especially when you also take into account the selective arrests, prosecution, sentencing, and so on.As to why it happened: in no small part to exclude PoC from the labor market (as a felony conviction will impact hiring opportunities), so as to give whites more jobs as outsourcing was getting going and as women were entering the labor market. See Michelle Alexander's the new jim crow, and James Forman Jr.'s Locking up our own.

Aside from that, one big driver of drug production and trafficking since at least ww2 has been the CIA (look into their role in the rise of the italian mob, marseille, chomsky's discussed some of this history); they're currently allowing the Afghani war lords we work with to make money that way; and they did similar things in central america from the 1970s on (see Iran-Contra, Gary Webb's work). Obviously, those drugs had to be sold.

See https://youtu.be/euGA3VqRiAU?t=5576 for a summary (chomsky lecture called the new world order, 92m in).


I'm doing a research paper following cocaine from production in the Andes to consumption at my university where a majority of the student body is well-to-do. I was wondering if I could get some of your sources, as well as those from pat's comment. Thanks!


Hey thanks for your comments pat. Your presented some interesting information I would love to read more about. Could you forward over your references? particularly for points 1-3.



There are several points to your post that I would comment on.

1). Crack has been found to be just as addictive as cocaine in study after study. The studies that said that crack was more addictive were all done on rats, not people.

2). Contrary to your statement that the majority of users are lower class minorities, whites are in fact the majority of users, but blacks are 80% of those fact tracked for mandatory sentencing.

3). Cocaine users have just as much crime related issues as Crack addicts. In fact the first drug courts were started in Florida, one of the main ports of entry for cocaine into the us. Because the crime tended to occur with the well to do, it was not seen as being as much of a problem. But the reality is that as addiction gets worst, some addicts will do what ever it takes to secure their source.

The fears of crack babies issues were hype and were the same issues for babies born with cocaine in their system. It was a big hype that allowed schools in minority areas to throw up their hands because the government said all hope was lost. 30 years later we know that the vast majority of the kids turned out fine. Cocaine is just as damaging as crack.

And while 5 years was the mandatory minimum, most people found to have crack got an average of 20 years. I think that it is important to let your readers know that mandatory minimums in the United States also correlated with the advent of private, for profit prisons that took over the work of many of the government run prisons. The longer a young healthy person stays in jail, the more income the jail gets. We know that criminal actives and drug use slow down and stop by the age of 30, so the jails have to get them while they are young.
The price that these prisons charged each state varies from a low of 14.5k to 60k per inmate per year. With the average being 31k. And these numbers do not include the super max prison payments, which are much higher. The inmates are responsible for the cleaning, cooking, and running of the prisons with an average remuneration of $16 a month for working 8 hours 4-5 days a week. And these prisons only provide hygiene products if the inmate can pay for them. It is slave labor by any other name.
Your readers who may not be familiar with the American justice system should also understand that a prosecutor does not have to charge someone with crimes that get a mandatory minimums regardless of the evidence. They have the discretion to offer them plea deals to a lesser charge which may not result in any prison time and can lead to having their criminal records expunged. An important option. Unlike most countries in the world where you are given a second chance after you complete your sentence, having a criminal record (however minor),can prevent a person from getting a job, housing or educational opportunities forever. Which leads to higher rates of recidivism. One study on inequality in sentencing based on race showed the some non-minorities were in correctly offed first time offender programs multiple times, when minorities were rarely offered them.

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