Thursday, July 29, 2010

Crack in the Drug War Armor

This week Congress acted to significantly reduce the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine thereby making the law, as one commentator put it, “only one fifth as racist as it used to be.” A summary of the law awaiting President Obama’s signature details that it:

Reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, with a 5-year mandatory minimum for 28 grams of crack cocaine and a 5-year mandatory minimum for 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (the only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug).

[And, because one can’t appear too “soft” on crime these days, it also:] Significantly increases fines for convicted major drug traffickers.

Significantly increases sentences for drug offenders involved in aggravating factors, including bribing law enforcement; maintaining an establishment for drug manufacturing or distribution; involving minors, seniors, or vulnerable victims in the offense; importing drugs; intimidating witnesses; tampering with evidence; or obstructing justice.

Finally recognizing the impact of the sentencing disparity on the Black community, this new legislation is one step in the direction of repairing racism coursing through the veins of the U.S. drug laws. If Congress wanted to fully acknowledge the rotten racial core of the drug laws, it would recognize that just as fears of Chinese immigrants helped spur the regulation of opium in the early 1900s, outlandish fears of Black men raping White women and launching murderous sprees while high on cocaine led to cocaine’s initial restriction. In the years since, similar fears directed at Mexican and Black users of marijuana swept pot into the drug enforcement war. At the same time, use of these drugs became more prevalent among Whites and entered the cultural mainstream.

The disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine in Black communities and powder cocaine in the soccer mom suburbs is, however, just the most formal disparity in drug laws. Congress did nothing to address the disparity in profiling of potential drug suspects that has many urban Blacks and Latino/as viewed with suspicion and subjected to pretextual stops while police enforcement in White neighborhoods looks more for “suspicious” minorities out of their supposed element than to what is likely going on behind closed doors. Congress seized some of the low hanging, rotten fruit of the national drug policy this week, but likely won’t touch the larger issues of injustice that have survived the last century.

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