Cocaine: Law and order

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 10:09 am

Are cocaine sentencing laws unfair?

According to the Federal Trafficking Penalties, a first-time offender convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine, will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without parole. Five grams of crack cocaine, which can fit into a tablespoon, can be broken into 50-200 “rocks” to be smoked.

If that same first-time offender had been convicted of possessing powder cocaine — the offender would need 500 grams of powder to trigger the same mandatory sentence. In other words, the offender could possess 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine. Five hundred grams is over one pound and would fill a cereal bowl. It is the equivalent of 10,000 doses suitable for snorting or dissolving in water and injecting.

There is a relationship between crack and powder cocaine. Cocaine arrives in the United States from Columbia in the form of powder cocaine (cocaine hydrochloride). Crack is then made in the United States by mixing powder cocaine and sodium bicarbonate. The resulting precipitate is dried and cut into “rocks.” Five hundred grams of powder cocaine can be converted into 445 grams of crack or between 4,550-17,800 doses. Without powder cocaine, there would be no crack.

So why is there a disparity in the federal sentencing guidelines? In the 1980s, as the powder cocaine epidemic was drawing to a close, a new epidemic was emerging — crack cocaine. Crack sold for as cheaply as three to five dollars per rock. Suddenly, the market exploded and crack use spread to the young and the poor. Though cocaine powder is powerfully addictive, crack seems to be even more so.

Wanting to send a strong message that crack was intolerable, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 with the 100:1 powder cocaine vs. crack ratio. Because more African Americans tend to use crack, whereas more Hispanics and whites tend to use powder cocaine, this law continues to result in harsher prison terms for blacks. In 1996, the American Medical Association published a study and recommended a revised powder cocaine/crack ratio of 2 or 3:1. In 1997 the Department of Justice recommended that the ratio be reduced to 10:1. The Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2001 (S. 1874) has been introduced into the Senate and would increase the amount of crack necessary to trigger mandatory sentences while increasing the penalties for powder cocaine convictions, if it becomes law. This is one of numerous bills proposed since 1988, none of which have passed.


Women’s rights vs. safety of unborn

Do hospitals have the right to secretly test pregnant patients for cocaine and to inform the police if the test is positive? The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) thought so. In 1989, MUSC began giving urine tests to women suspected of cocaine use. If the test was positive, sometimes the police were called. Later, MUSC gave women who tested positive a choice — treatment or arrest.

In 1993, 10 women who tested positive at MUSC filed a suit based on the Fourth Amendment. They held that drug tests without consent was tantamount to unreasonable search and seizure. It was also argued that pregnant women might avoid prenatal care if such care could result in going to jail.

In 1996, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided in favor of the city. Its ruling was based on protecting the child. A fetus, in the last trimester, is a person. A pregnant woman is liable if she uses cocaine, thereby passing it on to her unborn child. The court upheld MUSC’s drug testing in an effort to protect the unborn.

Indeed, there is no shortage of evidence that cocaine is harmful to the unborn child. Cocaine greatly increases the chances of a miscarriage. Low birth weight “crack babies” have 20 times as great a risk of dying in their first month of life than normal-weight babies. Those who survive are at increased risk for birth defects, including a five-fold greater chance of having an abnormal urinary tract. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) research released October 2001, these children sustained long-lasting brain changes. Eight years after birth, children exposed to cocaine prior to birth had detectable brain chemistry differences. The study concluded that this finding might be a biological explanation as to why some cocaine-exposed children are more impulsive and easily distractible than unexposed children.

The case ultimately went to the United States Supreme Court. On March 21, 2001, after hearing arguments for both sides, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the women based on the Fourth Amendment. Hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugs without their consent and then inform the police.

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