Federal Sentencing Guidelines Disparity in Crack Versus Powder Cocaine

It is all too common these days to listen to news commentators discussing the disparity between federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. For reasons beyond the scope of this posting, certain stakeholders view this disparity as the product of systemic racism. These individuals see the overwhelming number of minority defendants facing lengthy prison sentences for crack offenses, while the powder cocaine defendants, where minorities are less represented, face far more lenient penalties.

On the other hand, those arguing in favor of the disparate treatment of powder and crack cocaine frequently cite the inherently addictive nature of crack cocaine as justification for the disparity. The argument is essentially that because crack is so much worse for you, the government must provide a stronger disincentive to those who might seek to profit from its distribution and use. On the surface this makes sense; but it makes less sense when you consider that the sentencing guidelines for heroin and opium, both of which are terrible for you (see Phillip Seymour Hoffman), are a fraction of the guidelines for crack cocaine.

Let's take a moment to consider the guidelines for each of these drugs, and then ask ourselves if they make any sense.

Here's how it works. Federal sentencing guidelines in drug cases are based on drug weights; the more you sold or conspired to sell, the higher the guidelines. The problem is that most conspiracies involve more than one kind of drug, so the feds had to come up with a way to apply different types of drugs to the same scale. What they decided to do was to convert each drug to a corresponding amount of marijuana. So at the end of the day we aren't looking at, for example, weights of cocaine and ecstasy, but instead at weights of cocaine and ecstasy that have been converted to a single amount of marijuana. The problem from a policy perspective became balancing the different drugs against each other in terms of their relative severity and detriment to society and promulgating conversion weights based upon these determinations. One solution would have been to allow a test subject to snort a bunch of cocaine and then smoke a joint and then write down which one he liked more, and by how much, repeating this process for every drug known to man, but this would have been too dangerous. Instead, the Sentencing Commission came up with an enormous table that converts each drug to marijuana in proportions based upon their views as to which drugs are more or less dangerous to society.

Here are a couple of the results. The feds treat 1 gram of heroin as equal to 1,000 grams of marijuana (essentially heroin is one thousand times worse than marijuana in their eyes). 1 gram of opium, on the other hand is equal to 50 grams of marijuana (so fifty times worse than marijuana). Here's where it gets interesting though: 1 gram of powder cocaine is equal to 200 grams of marijuana, but 1 gram of crack cocaine is equal to 3,571 grams of marijuana! The crack conversion weight is over three and a half times worse than the conversion weight for heroin, and almost 18 times worse the conversion weight for powder cocaine!

These disparities make no sense to me and to many other practitioners; and minorities continue to suffer disproportionately as a result. There are efforts underway in all three branches of government to change this system, but change can't come fast enough. I'm in court constantly trying to explain the rationale for these differences to my clients, and I simply can't do it with a straight face. The system is unfair and needs to change quickly.

The bottom line is that if you are facing drug charges in federal court you are in a very bad place, and you need someone who has been there and knows how to fight back. Let me guide you through this process and fight the feds in their own turf! Contact us today for a free consultation.

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