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Crack and Powder Cocaine to Get Equal Sentences?

The House Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that would finally level the punishment for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 now goes to the full House for vote.

In the late 1986 and 1988, Congress enacted harsh penalties for possession of crack cocaine (a freebase, smokable form of cocaine). Under those guideline, still in effect today, the sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine draws a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years. The same minimum sentence applies for sale or possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine.

This 100/1 disparity also applies to the sale of crack versus powder cocaine. The sale of 50 grams of crack draws the same mandatory 10 year minimum sentence as selling 5,000 grams (5 kilos) of powder cocaine.

Though some degree of discretion has been created in which prosecutors and judges can evade the harsh crack sentences, the sentencing disparity remains part of the guidelines at the base of federal drug crime sentencing.

The crack/powder disparity has been decried by many who say it was based on a misunderstanding of the natures of these two forms of cocaine and has had disproportionately disastrous effects within the nation's African American community.

Recent years have seen multiple attempts to reduce or eliminate the disparity. This year's Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act would put crack and powder on the same level by simply removing reference to "cocaine base" in the sentencing guidelines. This means that the sentencing guideline would make no distinction between different forms of cocaine.

President Obama's Department of Justice supports crack sentencing reform. In his letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer argued for getting rid of the disparity in cocaine sentencing based on science about both drug forms, the goal of combating major drug traffickers (rather than users), and basic fairness.