Crack vs. Powder Cocaine: a Gulf in Penalties

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Compiled by U.S. News library staff

While pure cocaine was introduced for medicinal purposes in the 1880s, crack cocaine emerged in the mid-1980s in part because of its almost immediate high and the fact that it is inexpensive to produce and buy. Highly addictive, the two varieties are classified as Schedule II substances.

As a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress set forth different mandatory penalties for cocaine and crack cocaine, with significantly higher punishments for crack cocaine offenses. There is a 5-year minimum prison penalty for a first-time trafficking offense involving 5 grams or more of crack cocaine or 500 grams or more of powder cocaine and a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty for a first-time trafficking offense involving 50 grams or more of crack cocaine or 5,000 grams or more of powder cocaine.

  • There were 12,166 federal drug arrests for cocaine in 2004; the Drug Enforcement Administration made nearly twice as many arrests for powder cocaine as for crack cocaine.
  • During 2006, 5,623 federal defendants were sentenced for crack cocaine-related charges in U.S. courts; approximately 96 percent of the cases involved trafficking.
  • Historically, the majority of crack cocaine offenders are black; powder cocaine offenders are now predominantly Hispanic. In 2006, African-Americans accounted for 82 percent of crack cocaine-related arrests, while white and Hispanic offenders accounted for 72 percent of powder cocaine-related arrests.
  • In 2005, street-level dealers made up the majority of crack cocaine offenders (55.4 percent), while couriers accounted for the largest fraction for powder cocaine offenders (33.1 percent).
  • In 2006, crack cocaine sentences were 43.5 percent longer than powder cocaine sentences; the average length of imprisonment for powder cocaine offenders was 84.7 months, while crack cocaine-related imprisonments averaged 121.5 months.
  • Pure cocaine was first used in the 1880s in eye, nose, and throat surgeries as an anesthetic and for its ability to constrict blood vessels and limit bleeding. However, the development of safer drugs has made its therapeutic applications obsolete.
  • Cocaine (all forms) was first federally regulated in December 1912 with the passage of the Harrison Act. The act banned the nonmedical use of cocaine; prohibited its importation; imposed the same criminal penalties for cocaine users as for opium, morphine, and heroin users; and required a strict accounting of medical prescriptions for cocaine. Following the passage of the Harrison Act and the emergence of cheaper, legal substances such as amphetamines, cocaine use declined; however, use increased in the 1960s, prompting Congress to classify it as a Schedule II substance in 1970.
  • While cocaine can currently be administered by a doctor for legitimate medical uses, like serving as a local anesthetic for some eye, ear, and throat surgeries, there are currently no medical uses for crack cocaine.

U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2006 Datafile
Compendium of Federal Justice Statistics, 2004
National Institute on Drug Abuse, "Cocaine: Abuse and Addiction, 2004"
U.S. Sentencing Commission, "Report to the Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, 2007"