A Crack in Reason (Update)

I remember the first time a man came into my office and told me his brother was arrested for “crack”.  The word meant nothing to me.  I did a lot of work with clients arrested for drugs, and though I knew a bit about the drugs on the street, but this was new to me.  

He explained that it was cocaine cooked with baking soda, boiled down so that it was concentrated.  It was sold in tiny vials, and ingested by smoking rather than snorting.  Why?  It was a cheaper, quicker way to get high. Cocaine was expensive.  Crack was cheap. Crack soon became the talk of the land, the latest, greatest threat to society.

Uptown Manhattan changed during the crack rage of the 80s.  Competition for the street corners became fierce and violent.  People who once sold pot now sold crack, and other people with guns challenged them for their long-held spots.  There was huge money to be made.  You just had to stay alive long enough to enjoy it.  Many did not. 

Overnight, tales of crack grew to mythic proportions.  It was the most addictive drug ever.  It turned people into raging animals.  Crack addicts would kill for their next fix.  There were plenty of deaths to make the point, though most were kids on street corners being shot by other kids on street corners for the right to sell nickel vials.

In due course, crack fell out of favor, just as heroin and cocaine had before it.  Heroin was back at the time, bringing a quiet, passive type of junkie rather than the hyped up crack type.  Crack turned out not to be the worst drug ever.  Just another drug.  No more addictive than cocaine.  Just cheaper.

Congress, which has yet to remove marijuana from Schedule 1 , the list of drugs that are purely evil, addressed the horror of crack by making its punishment 100 times worse than powdered cocaine.  There were mandatory minimums, lest people skirt the horror of crack by holding it in small, but deadly, quantities.  The idea was that no amount, no matter how small, should escape severe punishment.  No crack dealer should escape the harsh punishment necessary to end this plague.  It swept a lot of small users up in its clutches.  They were usually black or Hispanic.  White people didn’t use crack. 

It suited the myth, though it suggested that powdered cocaine, the drug of choice at the time by corporate executives, college professors and senators, was 100 times less criminal.  The joke back then was cocaine was God’s way of saying you make too much money.  It was expensive, but people who had the money bought it, hung out at Studio 54 with the glitterati and snorted coke on the dance floor.  It made them cool and edgy.  It made them high.

I challenged the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines, then mandatory, for crack, arguing that they were arbitrary and capricious, a penalty founded on distinction that didn’t exist, rendering it irrational.  I was laughed at by prosecutor and judge alike.  Crack was the most evil drug ever conceived, and deserved its 100 to 1 disparity.  It’s not that anybody in the courtroom, aside from my client, had the slightest clue about crack.  It was reefer madness.  Overnight, it was an inviolate part of the pathos of the drug war. 

A generation later, people in positions of influence came to the realization that it was just a fiction.  But it’s a fiction that became so ingrained in the psyche of the powerful that it was nearly impossible to overcome.  Nearly.  The New York Times has an editorial calling for the passage by the House of Representatives of Senator Richard Durbin’s bill ending the disparity.

Congress passed the misguided law two decades ago, when it was believed that crack — cocaine in baking soda — was more addictive and led to more violence than the powdered form of the drug. These myths were quickly debunked. But the country was stuck with a law under which a drug defendant found holding five ounces of crack received the same mandatory five-year prison term as one busted with 500 ounces of the chemically identical powdered form of the drug.

African-Americans make up a minority of crack users but account for about 80 percent of those convicted under the statute. The mandatory sentence has pushed drug policy in the wrong direction, imprisoning addicts who should have been sent to treatment programs.

I can’t remember the last time a crack case came into my office.  I suppose they are out there, but the plague passed long ago amongst my clientele.  And Congress is first beginning to catch up to what was patently obvious a generation ago.  It’s rather odd that there is a question on whether to end the disparity.  It’s not like anybody is arguing to decriminalize crack, but rather punish it as severely as powdered cocaine.  As if that’s a gift.

The crack plague served its purpose.  Many hopped on the war on drugs bandwagon, swapping freedom for safety from the hopped up masses of dark-skinned, drug-crazed crack addicts.   To argue that the crack disparity should be brought to an end at this point seems almost ridiculous.  It never should have happened, and the damage done by crack directly was nothing compared to the damage done by Congress’ treatment of crack. 

Yet marijuana remains on Schedule 1.  Society has its newer plague, terrorism, to justify the continued adoration of safety over freedom.  And only after the latest and greatest war on something sweeps the country will we step back and look at what we foolishly did in the name of fear. 

Crack caused people to lose all reason.  All of those people held seats in Congress.  Should Senator Durbin’s bill pass the House, it will end a vestige of criminal justice foolishness, but a generation too late.  The foolishness otherwise continues unabated.

Update:  The law passed the House. The 100 to 1 disparity is now reduced to 18 to 1, without retroactivity and maintaining the mandatory minimums (except for first time, small quantity possessors).  Woo hoo, kinda.

5 thoughts on “A Crack in Reason (Update)

  1. John Joseph Cascone

    I was practicing criminal defense in Houston at the time the crack epidemic hit the streets there. What a change it brought to the culture of the criminal justice system! It was, like you point out, prevalent amongst the African-American and Latino-American communities and led to great fear and greater “war” stories in the law enforcement arena. Like the entire “war on drugs” this has been an ongoing paranoia that has justified huge budgets for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and will not likely stop until there is a national awakening to the ridiculousness of such expenditures for programs that are, ultimately, failures for their inability to stem the flow of drugs onto our streets. If congress has the cajones to pass this bill I will have new hope that there is a possibility of progress with government as it is. More likely they will find a way to ignore and delay until an election date is not imminent. So long as law enforcement and its apologists are allowed to shape the debate politicians are not going to show intestinal fortitude and do the right thing. Drug wars mean bigger budgets, more employees and neater toys (faster cars and fancier guns) with which to go about their tasks.

  2. Lee

    Scott-out of curiosity what year was that? Were you living in NYC at the time or still Long Island? Are the tales of NYC being transformed into a war zone exaggerated? As an 80s baby, I grew up in Cleveland during the “crack epidemic” and it seemed pretty bad to me, but I don’t frankly know if it was much better beforehand.

  3. SHG

    It’s hard to remember exactly, but I believe it was the late 80’s, likely about 1986-88.  It was a war zone.  A lot of people I knew, I represented at one point or another, were found dead in the streets or charged with the murder of a rival.  Turf wars were constant, and groups were in a constant struggle for control. 

    Before that, drug dealers kept their neighborhoods quiet and peaceful, as it was good for business.  Then suddenly, everyone had a gun and was using it.  It was all about crack turf.  There were times I was supposed to go uptown to meet with clients, and I would get phone calls to stay out of Dodge.  So yes, it was bad.

  4. Albert Nygren

    I agree with what you said about the penalties for Crack Cocaine needing to be the same as for the powdered cocaine. I don’t understand though; in one place you say that White people don’t use Crack, in another place you say that African Americans are only a small minority of Crack users but make up 80% of those imprisoned under that law. If White people don’t use Crack and Black people are only a small minority of those smoking it; who are the majority of people smoking the stuff?

  5. SHG

    You’re attributing the NYT quote, that African American’s are only a small minority of crack users, to me.  I think otherwise, and suspect they are either referring to cocaine in its totality, distinguishing between black and Hispanic (rather than black andwhite) or pulling it out of their butt.  My experience is to the contrary.

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