The crack vs. powder cocaine debate

By Daniel Silliman


While the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case relating to the way the law treats crack cocaine and powder cocaine, Southern Crescent officials say there are distinct differences.

Federal sentencing guidelines, reflecting congressional policy decisions, give significantly harsher penalties to people caught with the rock form of the illegal stimulant derived from the coca plant. There is, roughly, a 100-to-1 disparity between the sentences for crack and the sentences for powder cocaine. Federal judges across the country have been balking at the guidelines.

"There was a move, on the part of some judges, to take what they considered the unfairness out of the guideline sentences, in regards to crack cases," said Daniel Richman, a professor of law at Columbia University.

At the heart of the Supreme Court's deliberations is an argument between judicial discretion -- the freedom of federal judges to consider all the facts and circumstances of a particular case -- and the consistency and uniformity of sentences across the circuit court system.

In one of the cases under consideration, however, Kimbrough v. United States, "that cashes out as the issue of the distinction between ... crack and powder cocaine," Richman said.

Court watchers, pundits and legal critics have revived the disparity issue and some have called upon the U.S. Congress to move, saying the sentencing differences are racist, ridiculous and inappropriate.

Georgia law does not distinguish between equal amounts of crack cocaine and powder cocaine, but officials in Clayton and Henry counties said they do see some major distinctions between the drugs.

Clayton County Police Maj. Vance Donald said the method of using the two types of cocaine accounts for the difference. Powder cocaine is snorted or injected and takes a longer time to get into the drug-user's system, while the crack cocaine rock is smoked in a pipe and has a more immediate effect, although the high from crack doesn't last as long.

The immediate effect of the smoked drug does have debilitating effects, Donald said.

"Crack addicts," he said, "that's all they're into. Every dime they get, they're going to spend it to get crack."

The rock form of cocaine is more addictive because it's purer, said Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd. Powder cocaine is cut with other substances, and has a lot of impurities, while crack cocaine is created by boiling the powder, a process which eliminates the impurities, Floyd said.

"Crack cocaine is highly concentrated and you're able to get a higher dose of whatever it is that makes cocaine do what it does," the district attorney said. "That's the whole point of crack cocaine. I'm told it's immediately addictive."

Officials in Clayton and Henry counties, however, say there isn't a great disparity between the actual crack cocaine users and powder cocaine users. "It tends to lend itself to lower incomes, but it crosses lines, racial lines and social lines," Floyd said.

According to Henry County Police Capt. Ken Turner, it used to be that he could delineate between white drug users and black drug users, rich drug users and poor drug users. But those distinctions have disappeared over the last decade.

"I've seen business owners here in Henry County, who develop a crack cocaine addiction, and these people, otherwise, would be running a very lucrative business. But it costs them everything," he said.

The majority of crack cocaine users may come from a lower, socio-economic background, Donald said, but that's only true "to an extent." Sometimes, powder cocaine habits develop into crack habits, and the relatively easy transformation of powder into rock means that the those involved with the one can transition to the other.

In the Atlanta area, Donald said, crack cocaine currently costs about the same, per gram, as the powder variety. Crack rocks are selling on the streets for between $60 and $100, per gram, and cocaine powder is selling for between $75 and $110, per gram.

The delineation between the drugs may have more to do with who gets caught, than with who uses the different types of drugs, according to John Turner, Clayton County's executive assistant district attorney.

"I am of the opinion that there are a lot of white people who smoke crack cocaine, middle class people who do it, and don't get caught," the assistant district attorney said. "I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who does what and a lot of stereotypes about who does what, but, undoubtedly, street people are going to have more interaction with police."

Turner said in a recent case, a man was reportedly hanging out at a trash bin behind a fast food restaurant. When police stopped to talk to him, they spotted crack cocaine and a glass pipe. The man was first questioned, then arrested, because he was hiding behind a trash bin.

Officials in both counties say crack cocaine use is still prevalent, though not as prevalent as it once was. "It's not the drug du a," Floyd said. "Eight to 10 years ago, crack cocaine was the drug we saw the most of."

In Henry County, the police have seized more methamphetamine in recent years, and consider "ice" the most pernicious illegal drug at this time. In Clayton County, police have seized more powder cocaine than anything else, mostly in large shipments moving through the area.

The Supreme Court will hear the arguments of experts relating to the disparity between the types of cocaine on Tuesday. Justices are expected to make a decision sometime this session. It is not clear, Professor Richman said, how any decision will alter sentences.

"Even if judges are free to reject the crack/powder distinction, when exercising discretion in sentencing, they still will face statutory, mandatory, minimum sentences," the law professor said. "Statutory, mandatory minimums will be significant constraining factors -- and that will not change, unless Congress says it should."