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Crack Cocaine: A Journey Through Injustice and Reform

May 31, 2023

Authored by John Fabricius, Digital Campaigner

In the 1980s and 1990s, the United States grappled with a public health crisis that left a lasting impact on many of its communities: the crack cocaine epidemic. The affordability led to its rapid surge in popularity. Alongside this spread came a wave of crime and violence, especially in urban areas, leading to increased policing, convictions, changes in law, and a massive increase in incarceration.

The Dawn of Crack Cocaine in America

In the early 1980s, a dramatic shift occurred in the narcotics scene in America. This was when an avalanche of cocaine, sourced mainly from Colombia, was flooding into the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, although demand in the United States was high, the supply outpaced the demand. Bottlenecks began to appear in the supply chain due to the large amounts of cocaine sitting outside the United States waiting to come in and be sold. This oversupply of cocaine resulted in a significant price drop and reduced returns for cocaine traffickers.

Faced with sinking returns, cocaine dealers found a silver lining. They discovered a new method to enhance their profitability while offering a more affordable product to their customers. Their solution was to transform cocaine powder into a new form, known as "crack." This novel version of cocaine had several notable characteristics:

  • It could be sold in small quantities to a larger customer base
  • It was inexpensive to produce and ready to use
  • It promised high profits for dealers

Crack Cocaine: Nationwide Availability and Impact

By 1985-1986, crack was being reported in cities like Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, New York City, Newark, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, and Phoenix. According to a report from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the repercussions of its spread were alarming:

  • Cocaine-related hospital emergencies increased by 12 percent from 1985 to 1986, jumping from 23,500 to 26,300 cases
  • In 1986, these incidents surged by 110 percent, reaching 55,200
  • From 1984 to 1987, cocaine incidents shot up to 94,000
  • By 1987, crack was reportedly available in the District of Columbia and all but four states in the United States

The Shift in Political Winds: United States in the Mid-80s

The issue of crack cocaine in America is complex. It's essential to take a step back and consider the broader political landscape that was taking shape in the mid-80s. This was a time marked by robust "Tough-on-Crime" rhetoric that resonated on both sides of the political aisle, making it a mainstream political discourse. The United States, under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, found itself in a climate charged with both military and political ambitions that reached far beyond its borders, especially into South and Central America.

The spotlight on these ambitions and the strong law-and-order messaging collided dramatically with the growing media frenzy around the so-called Crack Epidemic. Cocaine, in both its forms, was being consumed across the United States, transcending socio-economic barriers. However, the public narrative focused disproportionately on crack, with sensationalized media stories stirring panic and hysteria.

The Undercurrents of Bias: Fueling the Fire of the Crack Epidemic

This fear around crack cocaine fed into pre-existing racial biases that were deeply entrenched within American society and law enforcement. The image painted was starkly racial, with crack being portrayed as a menace wreaking havoc on minority communities, particularly African-Americans. This racialization of crack fueled a narrative that sensationalized the impact in urban areas and oftentimes disregarded the reality of cocaine use in the rest of the country.

From Fear to Reactionary Legislation: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

Fueled by sensational media stories and public fear, the political climate in 1986 was ripe for reactionary legislation. Congress responded by passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. At first glance, this might have seemed like a necessary response to a growing issue. However, it soon became clear that this Act, in fact, represented one of the most problematic pieces of legislation passed by Congress. Its impact was far-reaching, exacerbating the very biases and disparities it was purportedly designed to address.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed stringent penalties for drug offenses, particularly those involving crack cocaine. A standout feature of this law was the 100:1 sentencing disparity, which meant that possessing an amount of crack cocaine was subject to the same penalty as possessing 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine.


Congress provided five reasons for this high ratio, which included beliefs that crack cocaine was more addictive, associated with violent crime, more likely to be used by youth, inexpensive and therefore more likely to be consumed in large quantities, and dangerous for pregnant mothers if consumed. However, these beliefs were later challenged by research and criticized for their lack of scientific basis.

The fallout from the 1986 law was significant. Penalties for crack cocaine offenses were much more severe than those for powder cocaine offenses. For example, a person found with five grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years, while a person would need to possess five hundred grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.

Disproportionate Impact on Black Communities

The application of this law had a devastating impact on Black communities across the United States. The increased policing and convictions led to a sharp rise in incarceration rates in these communities. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that the sentencing disparity resulted in a racial imbalance in federal prisons, with a disproportionate number of African Americans being sentenced for crack cocaine offenses.

Furthermore, the disparity often led to more severe sentences for low-level crack dealers than for wholesale suppliers of powder cocaine, exacerbating the devastation in these communities.

The Stark Racial Disparities in Crack Cocaine Offenses

The racial implications tied to crack cocaine offenses present a deeply troubling pattern. In fact, no other drug class exhibits such a pronounced racial skew as crack. Based on U.S. Commission Study cited by US News and World Report, a staggering 79% of the 5,669 individuals sentenced for crack offenses in 2009 were Black. Contrast this with only 10% who were White and another 10% who were Hispanic.

The data tells a somewhat different story when it comes to powder cocaine cases, which are less racially imbalanced. Out of the 6,020 individuals prosecuted for such offenses, 17% were White, 28% were Black, and 53% were Hispanic.

However, the discrepancy doesn't stop at the numbers of offenders. There's a vast difference in the length of sentences too. On average, individuals convicted of crack offenses face 115 months in prison. This is substantially longer than the average of 87 months meted out for cocaine offenses.


A Turning Point: Confronting the Fallout from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act was a turning point in our nation's history. This legislation set off a seismic shockwave in our society, with incarceration rates skyrocketing almost overnight. It was our Black communities that felt the harshest aftershocks, bearing the brunt of a deeply flawed system. This Anti-Drug Abuse Act did little to address the root causes of drug abuse, instead it focused on a law-and-order, pro-carceral approach which led to a cycle of disenfranchisement and injustice.

The harsh repercussions of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act served as a wake-up call, leading us as a society to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and start working towards reform. This push for change has resulted in key legislation like the Fair Sentencing Act, the First Step Act, and now the EQUAL Act. Each of these laws signifies a serious commitment to redressing past wrongs and building a more balanced and compassionate criminal justice system.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010: A Step Towards Equity

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, marking a shift towards reform and justice. This Act reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses to 18:1. While this was a significant improvement, it still meant that crack cocaine offenses were punished more harshly than powder cocaine offenses, indicating an ongoing disparity.

However, the change was not retroactive, which meant that it only impacted new convictions and did not address the sentences of people that had been convicted prior to the passing of the Fair Sentencing Act. What the Fair Sentencing Act did provide was a process for individuals imprisoned under the old laws to petition for their sentences to be reconsidered. This provision was a beacon of hope for many who had received disproportionately harsh prison sentences but was insufficient to address the vast number of people serving unjust sentences based on the old law.

The First Step Act of 2018: A Move Towards Restorative Justice

In December 2018, the First Step Act was signed into law by President Donald Trump. This law made the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, meaning individuals who were sentenced under the 100:1 disparity could now have their sentences reduced to reflect the 18:1 disparity.

Other reforms included in the First Step Act aimed at improving conditions within federal prisons and reducing recidivism rates. Thousands of individuals have been released due to these changes, indicating significant progress towards a more balanced and equitable justice system.

The Continuing Struggle: Advocating for the EQUAL Act

Justice continues to be a moving target. But amidst the constant tug-of-war between progress and stagnation, we at Dream.Org along with a number of justice reform groups are partnering with lawmakers and activists to pass the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act (EQUAL Act).

The EQUAL Act will remove the current sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. When passed, this legislation would establish a 1:1 ratio, thereby ending the sentencing disparity and the devastating outcomes this law produces.

The EQUAL Act was initially proposed during the 2021-2022 Congressional session, where it successfully passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming show of bipartisan support: 361 Yays to 66 Nays. Despite this promising start, the Act didn't manage to clear the Senate hurdle before the session closed.

Undeterred, advocates reintroduced the EQUAL Act during the 2023-2024 Congress, where it's presently working its way through the legislative process.

Your Voice Matters: Join the Fight for Justice

This fight has just begun. There's a role for everyone in this journey towards justice, and this is where you come in. Dream.Org has launched a petition, calling upon Congress to pass the EQUAL Act. Your signature could tip the balance. Sign now!

Stand up for justice. Stand up for fairness. By signing the Dream.Org petition, you'll be adding your voice to a chorus of thousands around the country calling for an end to sentencing disparities. It's more than a signature; it's a declaration that you believe in a justice system that treats all offenses equitably. Make your mark, sign the petition, and join us in urging Congress to pass the EQUAL Act. Together, we will make a difference.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.