Justice and Due Process

Crack and Powder Cocaine Disparities Highlight Deeper Problem with Drug Laws

US Attorney general Merrick Garland has rightly been praised for working to end sentencing disparities between different forms of cocaine. Crack and powder cocaine are chemically identical and pose the same type of risks to users and the public.

Yet despite these similarities, federal law has punished possession and distribution of crack much more harshly than that of powder: the maximum sentence for possession of powder is one year in jail while possession of five grams of crack is punished by five years in prison. 

This discrepancy is symptomatic of a much larger problem: drug classifications are not objective and do not accurately reflect societal or individual harm. 

Psilocybin has been ranked as the least harmful drug, and numerous studies have found it has significant and long-lasting benefits for those suffering from depression. Yet, it remains categorized as Schedule 1, which is ostensibly only for “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Meanwhile, doctors routinely prescribe addictive opiates for pain; Ritalin, a chemical cousin of methamphetamine, to children with ADHD; and methadone, itself frequently abused, to people struggling with addiction. There is little scientific basis for which chemicals can be ingested legally and which can land you in prison. 

Branding people criminals and curtailing their freedom is a weighty step. It is justified only if there is significant evidence that their choice is harming others and the proposed sanction will do something to ameliorate that harm.

Current drug penalties pass neither of these tests. Lawmakers owe it to both those accused of drug crimes and the taxpayers, who fund their prosecution and incarceration, to make sure that drug classifications and penalties are grounded in objective fact.