Cocaine: Personal and social consequences

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 10:08 am

When cocaine use progresses to a point of dependence it can be devastating. At this stage, drug seeking often becomes the first priority. Suddenly, values such as love of family and commitment to work can take second place to finding, buying, and using cocaine.

Habitual users can lose the trust and respect of the people important to them. Lying, stealing, and isolating oneself all take a heavy toll on family, friends, and employment relationships.

Aside from theft, NIDA funded research shows that drug abusers cost employers about twice as much in medical and worker’s compensation claims than drug-free workers. As a result, more and more businesses are requiring drug screening before hiring and are employing periodic drug-testing thereafter.

While a single dose of cocaine may cost as little as five or ten dollars, an addiction can cost hundreds of dollars a week. This can lead to financial ruin and often progresses to criminal activity. (Users desperate for more drugs may turn to illegal activity, including robbery or prostitution, in order to finance their habit.) Conviction of an illegal drug offense can trigger minimum mandatory prison sentences. Also, students convicted of cocaine possession can be disqualified from obtaining federal college grants and loans.

Though less than 2% of Americans use cocaine, it has profound national consequences. Health and human services related to drug and alcohol abuse cost taxpayers more than $294 billion dollars annually. This cost rose 50% from 1985 to 1992. ANIDA-funded study showed that cocaine use was the primary factor contributing to this increase.

Under the Controlled Substance Act, cocaine is a Schedule II drug. This means that cocaine has a high potential for abuse and that abuse may lead to severe physical and psychological dependence. It also means that cocaine has accepted medical uses with severe restrictions. The only legal use of cocaine in the United States is as a local anesthetic.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 established federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing guidelines. The punishment exacted by the federal law is substantially greater than the punishment imposed by most state laws. For example, someone convicted of cocaine possession that receives a 12-year sentence in the state system may be liable for a mandatory life term if tried in the federal system. Also, most state laws do not differentiate between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Federal law carries a much harsher penalty for crack than for powder. Possession of five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder carries a mandatory first-offense penalty of not less than five years in prison.

Legal history

Cocaine accessed by chewing coca leaves has been a legal and common tradition in South America for over 4,000 years. It continues to be legal.

Purified powder cocaine was legal in Europe and the United States from its introduction in the 1860s until 1914. During that time, cocaine use reached epidemic proportions. Medical reports of addiction and sudden death caused public opinion to move against cocaine use. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act mandated that cocaine be listed as an ingredient in all medicines whether they were sold by individuals or drug companies. President William Taft declared cocaine as Public Enemy No. 1, and in 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act. Cocaine thus became one of the first drugs to be banned in the United States. That same year, all 48 states had laws banning cocaine. The only legal use for cocaine was as a local anesthetic.

While laws continued to be passed over the next seven decades, none proved to be as controversial as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988. Like the Harrison Act, this law arose during an epidemic of cocaine use.

This time, it was the 1980s epidemic fueled by crack. In 1986, the death of two promising young athletes, Len Bias and Don Rogers, added to public outrage. The new laws differentiated between powder cocaine and crack and were much harsher on the latter. These laws require 100 times as much powder cocaine possession as crack to trigger an identical minimum mandatory prison sentence. Ongoing controversy surrounds this law. Several bills have been introduced to reduce the disparity, but none have been passed into law as of early 2002.

Drug trafficking organizations in Columbia control the world’s cocaine supply. The United States is actively engaged in fighting Columbia-based drug cartels. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Congressional testimony of March 2, 2001 stated that targeting organized crime groups in Columbia will continue to be a priority and a matter of national security.

Federal guidelines, regulations, and penalties

Federal Trafficking Penalties, which are outlined in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988, make a significant distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. A first-time offender convicted for possession of 5^9 grams of crack cocaine will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and not more than 40 years. Fines for individuals can be up to $2 million. The federal mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine begin at 500^,999 grams and trigger the same sentence. Penalties for convicted second-time offenders are a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years to life, with fines up to $4 million. This law is often referred to as the 100:1 law and has been challenged and reviewed several times.

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