BOSTON (AP) – 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, earlier 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 generally 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.
"You had politicians manipulating fear, and instead of being seen as a more direct mode of ingestion of a very old drug, it became a demonic new substance," said Craig Reinarman, a sociology and legal-studies professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who edited the 1997 book "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice" about the rise of crack in the 1980s.
When crack first became popular, there was an increase in murders and other crimes associated with the drug. But the bloodshed was not necessarily the result of something inherent in crack.
Instead, most of that violence was typical for what happens when any illegal drug is introduced and drug dealers with guns compete for new markets, said Dr. Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Although there was already a great deal of concern about crack by 1986, the death of basketball star Len Bias in June of that year is seen as the pivotal event that spurred Congress to enact the much tougher sentences for crack offenses.
Bias was a star at the University of Maryland and had just been drafted by the Boston Celtics when he died. Initial news reports incorrectly said Bias died after using crack. It wasn't until months later that one of Bias' teammates testified that he had actually snorted cocaine the night be died.
By that time, the harsh penalties for crack crimes had already been passed by Congress, with a push from House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, whose Celtic-fan constituents were up in arms about Bias' death.
"Len Bias' death symbolized just how terrible this drug was," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group based in Washington. "Here you had this promising young man on the verge of a very great basketball career and his life is taken away by the evils of crack cocaine."
The crack scare was also fueled by medical professionals who worried that pregnant women who used the drug would give birth to a generation of babies with severe neurological damage. But the "crack babies" theory has been largely debunked.
Dr. Harolyn Belcher, an associate professor of pediatrics at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, said there is no evidence that crack is biologically more harmful than powdered cocaine to the fetus or developing child.
"If I had a well-to-do family whose wife was at home snorting coke versus someone who is a mother who is out on the street using crack, the babies would look very similar," Belcher said.
Belcher said children who were exposed to crack or powdered cocaine in the uterus may be at slightly higher risks for language delays and attention deficits, but she said recent studies have shown that alcohol is far more devastating to the fetus.
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.
"The bottom-line conclusion is that for punishment purposes, they should be treated much more similarly than they are now. That's based upon the fact that in the real world, they are not as different overall as was initially thought," Steer said.
The reductions in the recommended sentences for crack offenses went into effect Nov. 1, but the guidelines do not affect the minimum mandatory sentences, which only Congress can change.