The 1970s saw an increased popularity in cocaine use. Although President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1972, overall American sentiment toward cocaine in the 1970s was rather indifferent. A 1977 Newsweek article reflected this feeling: “taken in moderation, cocaine probably causes no significant mental or physical damage and a number of researchers have concluded that it can be safer than liquor and cigarettes when used discriminately.” Many viewed the drug as the “marijuana of the 1970s” and relatively few felt that cocaine posed any real threat. Cocaine, an extremely expensive drug at the time, was often associated with ambitious young businessmen and glamorous celebrities, which ...view middle of the document...
From 1986 to 1992 there was an explosion of news coverage of crack and fear of an ‘epidemic’ of drug use in the ghettos.
Newsweek, almost ten years after it printed the article claiming cocaine was harmless, published a series of articles about the dangers and extremely addictive qualities of crack and cocaine. Myths of the ‘crack baby’ and the drug crazed, violent ‘crack head’ were born and, despite their limited foundation in reality, they endure as the image of crack users.
By the mid-1980s, Americans no longer tolerated cocaine as a benign, recreational drug. As a result, the Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, setting harsh punishments for those found trafficking in or possession of cocaine or crack. Many states followed suit, setting mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations, which vary in severity depending on the state. Although cocaine use has decreased since the 1980s, crack use is at about its late 1980s level (NSDUH). Popularly, use of the drug is still considered extremely dangerous and socially unacceptable.
The sentencing disparity between convictions for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is discriminatory toward African-Americans. Federal policy is responsible for this disparity, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and Public Law 104-38 (Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Amendment, Disapproval) being the most significant contributors. Differences in the consumption and marketing patterns of crack cocaine and powder cocaine do not justify stiffer penalties. Ironically, the inequitable sentencing of African-Americans has done little to remedy the problem of cocaine trafficking in the United States. Americans believe in a system of justice where all individuals are treated fairly under the law. But mandatory minimum sentencing laws prohibit judges from considering all the facts in a criminal case when determining sentences. The result is one-size-fits-all justice that ignores defendants' life circumstances, criminal history and role in the offense.
The 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts established excessive mandatory penalties for crack cocaine that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses and created drastically different penalty structures for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine, which are pharmacologically identical substances. The law has diverted precious resources away from prevention and treatment for drug users and devastated communities ripped apart by incarceration.
Today a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of harsh crack cocaine mandatory sentences has emerged among advocates, policymakers, judges and the United States Sentencing Commission.
Government officials justify the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine based on the devastating effect that the latter drug exerts at the community level. According to testimony at a recent Congressional hearing, "We the public's perceptions were that the federal...