This op-ed was originally published in the Deseret News.
Using recreational cocaine isn’t something conservatives usually spend too much debating. After all, cocaine is illegal, and it’s bound to stay that way. But this summer, the tides have changed, and Utah’s own Rep. Burgess Owens is co-sponsoring legislation to end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine at the federal level.
The Equal Act ensures that individuals caught with cocaine, no matter its particulate form, will be treated the same under the law. It’s a bipartisan bill that Utah’s federal delegation should all support.
A new poll found 73% of Utah voters support the measure. It’s not just Democrats with 85% who support it, but the polling also found 69% of those who identify as “strong conservatives” support it, too. This astounding backing by Utahns should signal to our congressional members to vote for the measure in confidence.
Powder and crack cocaine are nearly identical substances but are treated very differently under federal law. It all started when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This means a person caught with crack cocaine could be sentenced to the same amount of mandatory prison time as a person who has 100 times as much powder cocaine.
In an attempt to discourage drug use, this law was passed during the rise of crack usage in lower-income neighborhoods in the 1980s. Crack was far cheaper to get ahold of than powder cocaine and, therefore, was more popular in poor neighborhoods. This caused it to become stigmatized as more addictive and associated with higher crime. This fallacy of correlation has remained strong even today, and trying to fix the associated problems with longer prison sentences simply hasn’t helped.
In 2010, Congress drastically changed the 100 to 1 sentencing ratio down to 18 to 1 under the Fair Sentencing Act. The disparity still exists, but it’s far better than it was before. President Trump agreed and, when he took office, he signed the First Step Act into law, which made the ratio change retroactive in 2018. This allowed thousands of individuals to qualify for reduced sentencing if they were convicted prior to 2010.
This brings us to current times where, although the sentencing disparity ratio is far better, having a difference at all makes no sense. Science tells us there is no pharmacological difference between crack and powder cocaine in terms of active ingredients, so why treat them so differently under the law? The disparity is outdated and should have been abolished altogether in 2010 rather than just reduced. And now, Congress has the opportunity to do so.
The Equal Act already passed through the U.S. House Judiciary Committee with a vote of 36-5, garnering support from both sides of the aisle. It faces another battle to pass through the rest of Congress, and Utah’s delegation should be there to vote in support.
The debate over crack versus powder cocaine has no basis in science, in rationality, or in ethics. Because of this, many individuals have been needlessly imprisoned for far too long in comparison to the crime committed. Congress should pass the Equal Act to ensure these penalties are equalized and fairness is restored to criminal sentencing.