Chicago Tribune: The human body doesn't know the difference between cocaine in the form of powder, which is usually snorted, and crack rocks, which are smoked. Either one elicits a powerful physiological reaction.
But federal law treats them like radically different drugs. Get arrested with five grams of powder cocaine, and you can expect to get probation. But if you're caught with the same amount of crack, you won't need to pay rent for five years. To qualify for that same five-year sentence for powder, you'd need to have 500 grams -- 100 times as much as the trigger level for crack.
This 100-to-1 ratio has been a target of criticism from drug reform activists, civil rights groups and even presidents. The Sentencing Project in Washington has noted that a dealer convicted of selling $40,000 worth of powder could get off easier than the addict who bought $500 worth of crack. Black defendants generally get worse punishment than whites -- simply because the two races have different patterns of cocaine use.
Black caucus: In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a government body, called for eliminating the disparity. Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under President Bill Clinton, proposed to eliminate the different treatment altogether. So did the Congressional Black Caucus.
President Clinton proposed a change, and last year, President Bush endorsed the idea, saying, "I don't believe we ought to be discriminatory." But so far, Congress has resisted.
That resistance at last appears to be eroding. Recently, two conservative Republican senators, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Orrin Hatch of Utah, introduced a bill that would narrow the gap. To get a mandatory five-year prison sentence, a defendant would have to be caught with at least 20 grams of crack, up from the current 5. The trigger for powder, meanwhile, would drop -- from 500 grams to 400. The disparity would shrink from 100-to-1 to 20-to-1.
Getting tougher on powder users is not the best way to address the problem, but it may be needed for political cover. Fortunately, the legislation has other provisions that would mitigate the unfairness of federal drug laws.
Many of the people in federal prison on drug charges are low-level couriers persuaded by friends or romantic partners to carry a package of drugs. Because they know little, they usually can't bargain with prosecutors to testify in exchange for lenient treatment. As a result, they often get locked up for long periods, while the higher-ups get off easy.
Penalties: The Sessions-Hatch bill would reduce penalties for any defendant who "had a minimal knowledge of the illegal enterprise, was to receive little or no compensation from the illegal transaction, and acted on impulse, fear, friendship, or affection." Drug traffickers who exploit such people, by contrast, would be subject to stiffer penalties than now.
The crack-powder disparity has long raised questions about the American commitment to equal protection of the laws. Congress shouldn't miss this chance to reduce an embarrassing inequity.

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