Boston During some of the bloodiest years of the drug wars of the 1980s, crack was seen as far more dangerous than powdered cocaine, and that perception was written into the sentencing laws. But now that notion is under attack like never before.
Criminologists, doctors and other experts say the differences between the two forms of the drug were largely exaggerated and do not justify the way the law comes down 100 times harder on crack.
A push to shrink the disparity in punishments got a boost last month when reduced federal sentencing guidelines went into effect for crack offenses. Then, this month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal cases, voted to make the reductions retroactive, allowing some 19,500 inmates, mostly black, to seek reductions in their crack sentences.
Many think the changes are long overdue.
Crack, because it is smoked and gets into the bloodstream faster than snorted cocaine, produces a more intense high and is considered more addictive than powdered cocaine.
But experts say that difference does not warrant the 100-to-1 disparity that was written into a 1986 law that set a mandatory minimum prison term of five years for trafficking in 5 grams of crack, or less than the amount in two packets of sugar. It would take 100 times as much cocaine to get the same sentence.
"There's no scientific justification to support the current laws," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Many defense lawyers and civil rights advocates say the lopsided perception of crack versus cocaine is rooted in racism. Four out of every five crack defendants are black, while most powdered-cocaine defendants are white.
While powdered cocaine became the drug of choice for middle- and upper-income Americans in the 1970s, crack emerged in the early 1980s as a much cheaper version of the same drug.
In the mid-1980s, powdered cocaine was typically sold by the half-gram or gram for $50 to $100, while crack was sold as small rocks that cost as little as $5 to $10. Crack became popular in poor, largely minority urban areas, and it developed an image as a drug used mostly by violent, inner-city youths.
John Steer, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, said the commission first said in 1995 that the disparate punishments for crack and powdered cocaine defendants were not justified.