“First of all, let’s get one thing straight: crack is cheap,” Whitney Houston told Diane Sawyer, defiantly, in a now-infamous 2002 interview. “I make too much money to ever smoke crack…. Crack is whack.”
When Sawyer asked her about her recreational use of powder cocaine—a more expensive form of the drug—Houston didn’t deny it. But she seemed adamant that her reputation not be tarnished with a form of the drug that has traditionally been associated with the streets, with poverty, with desperation.
For decades, when it came to cocaine, the federal government operated on prejudices that were just as stark. In 1986 and 1988, Congress passed federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an attempt to address a rise in cocaine usage in the nation’s inner cities. As political science professor Michael J. Coyne explains in his chapter of the book Color Behind Bars, this legislation was borne out of
the premise that crack cocaine was 50 times more addictive than powder cocaine. For good measure, Congress doubled the number and came up with a sentencing policy based on the weight of the drug an individual was convicted of selling. Thus, federal sentences for crack were constructed to sentences for powder cocaine in a 100:1 quantity ratio.
So, for instance, someone caught with 50 grams of crack cocaine would trigger a 10-year mandatory sentence, while he or she would have to be carrying 5,000 grams of powder to trigger the same sentence. The result of this discrepancy was that even first-time offenders, if caught with any crack at all, would receive harsh mandatory sentences. “However, these assumptions were more reflective of the prevalent panic and fear that arose out of the explosive growth of the crack market than conclusions of scientific investigation,” Coyne adds.
Because of these assumptions, cocaine prosecutions and sentences were much more frequent, and much harsher, for lower-income drug users. It took several subsequent legislative adjustments for that sentencing disparity—and the racial and class-based disproportionalities that went along with it—to get addressed.
Picture: KeithBurtis (Flickr: Gavel & Stryker) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons