It’s one sentence in the Washington Post story on the potential change in federal sentencing guidelines for possession of crack cocaine.
The commission is taking up one of the most racially sensitive issues of the two-decades-old war on drugs. Jurists and civil rights organizations have long complained that the commission's guidelines mandate more stringent federal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, which usually involve African Americans, than for crimes involving powder cocaine, which generally involve white people. The chemical properties of the drugs are the same, though crack is potentially more addictive.It seems that even as the public starts to realize that crack cocaine wasn’t some super-drug that demanded we lock up nearly a third of all black men in the country for mere possession, the myth that crack was somehow worse than powder cocaine dies very hard.
It was only a month ago in fact that the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Five Myths About That Demon Crack.” And the Journal of American Medical Association also released a study that disputed the notion that crack cocaine was more chemically addictive than the powder version.
I understand that myths die hard. That’s why the one sentence in the Washington Post story is conflicted. It’s saying that crack is both chemically the same as cocaine but also potentially more addictive. Of course this is contrarian. If the substances are chemically the same they should then logically have the same pharmacological effects. It almost feels like the writer, Darryl Fears, sort of vaguely understood that crack wasn’t quite as bad as had been touted but decided to hedge just in case.
Again, bad information almost can’t be erased from our brains. I have no doubt that movies from the late 80s, early 90s like New Jack City and Colors that hyped crack cocaine drug wars probably left a huge impact in white middle class Americans psyche that “crack” was somehow way worse than cocaine and it takes more than a heap of medical studies to dislodge the myth.
It’s interesting that the same day that the U.S. Sentencing Commission is scheduled to consider a proposal to make the new crack cocaine sentencing guidelines retroactive (which would release many people from prison who are serving long sentences) there is a story about a package of three reports that show that African Americans have experienced downward mobility in the last generation.
Forty-five percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle class in 1968 -- a stratum with a median income of $55,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars -- grew up to be among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners, with a median family income of $23,100. Only 16 percent of whites experienced similar downward mobility. At the same time, 48 percent of black children whose parents were in an economic bracket with a median family income of $41,700 sank into the lowest income group.The researchers at Pew Charitable Trusts don’t have an explanation for why African Americans might have experienced downward mobility but I would like to posit that at least part of the reason was drug sentencing laws in the 80s.
I understand that drugs and drug addiction is a problem and no one wants to be living next to junkies. But how our culture response to such problems will show whether we mitigate the issue or simply creates new problems by creating classes of laws that, by design or by accident, end up targeting only one class of people.