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Dark Alliance [Transcript, Pt. 6]

Tran­scripts from Gary Web­b’s orig­i­nal San Jose Mer­cury News series.

August 23, 1996
by Gary Webb
San Jose Mer­cury News

When it comes to cocaine, it isn’t just a sus­pi­cion that the war on drugs is ham­mer­ing blacks hard­er than whites. Accord­ing to the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment, it’s a fact.

The “main rea­son” cocaine sen­tences for blacks are longer than for whites, the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics report­ed in 1993, is that 83 per­cent of the peo­ple being sent to prison for “crack” traf­fick­ing are black “and the aver­age sen­tence imposed for crack traf­fick­ing was twice as long as for traf­fick­ing in pow­dered cocaine.”

Even though crack and pow­der cocaine are the same drug, you have to sell more than six pounds of pow­der before you face the same jail time as some­one who sells one ounce of crack — a 100-to‑1 ratio.

That log­ic has elud­ed Dr. Robert Byck, a Yale Uni­ver­si­ty drug expert, from the moment he dis­cov­ered the 100-to‑1 ratio may have been his inad­ver­tent doing.

In 1986, at the height of an elec­tion-year hys­te­ria over crack, Byck was sum­moned before a U.S. Sen­ate com­mit­tee to tell what he knew about cocaine smok­ing.

Byck, a renowned sci­en­tist who edit­ed and pub­lished Sig­mund Freud’s cocaine papers, had been study­ing crack smok­ing in South Amer­i­ca for near­ly 10 years, with grow­ing alarm.

Sen. Law­ton Chiles, a Flori­da Demo­c­rat (and now that state’s gov­er­nor), was push­ing for tougher crack laws, and he asked Byck about tes­ti­mo­ny he had giv­en pre­vi­ous­ly that “some experts” believed crack was 50 times more addic­tive than pow­der cocaine. Byck acknowl­edged some peo­ple believed that.

Despite the spec­u­la­tive nature of the fig­ure, Byck said, the addic­tive fac­tor of 50 was “dou­bled by peo­ple who want­ed to get tough on cocaine” and then, for rea­sons he still finds incom­pre­hen­si­ble, turned into a mea­sure­ment of weight.

The resul­tant 100-to‑1 (powder-vs.-crack) weight ratio, Byck said, was “a fab­ri­ca­tion by who­ev­er wrote the law, but not real­i­ty. . . . You can’t make a num­ber.”

Recent­ly, the U.S. Sen­tenc­ing Com­mis­sion — a pan­el of experts cre­at­ed by Con­gress to be its unbi­ased advis­er in these mat­ters — tried and failed to find a bet­ter rea­son to explain why pow­der deal­ers must sell 100 times more cocaine before they get the same manda­to­ry sen­tence as crack deal­ers.

The “absence of com­pre­hen­sive data sub­stan­ti­at­ing this leg­isla­tive pol­i­cy is trou­ble­some,” it report­ed last year.

In 1993, cocaine smok­ers got an aver­age sen­tence of near­ly three years. Peo­ple who snort­ed cocaine pow­der received a lit­tle over three months. Near­ly all of the long sen­tences went to blacks, the com­mis­sion found.

Jus­tice Depart­ment researchers esti­mat­ed that if crack and pow­der sen­tences were made equal, “the black-white dif­fer­ence . . . would not only evap­o­rate but would slight­ly reverse.”

Based on such find­ings, the com­mis­sion rec­om­mend­ed in May 1995 that the cocaine-sen­tenc­ing laws be equal­ized, call­ing the 100-to‑1 ratio “a pri­ma­ry cause of the grow­ing dis­par­i­ty between sen­tences for black and white fed­er­al defen­dants.”

Appar­ent­ly fear­ful of being seen as soft on drugs, Con­gress vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly last year to keep the crack laws the same. On Octo­ber 30, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton signed the bill reject­ing the com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions.