Cocaine, crack, sentencing, reform, penalty, race


The now-infamous “War on Drugs” campaign of the 1980s culminated in the adoption of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which included a provision for a one-hundred-to-one sentencing ratio of powder cocaine to crack cocaine. This ratio provides that the penalty for a crime involving five or ten grams of crack cocaine is equivalent to the sentence for a crime involving five hundred or one thousand grams of powder cocaine. This structure has led to a racial disparity in sentencing because African Americans are more often charged with a crack cocaine offense than Caucasians, who are usually indicted for powder cocaine possession. Despite importunate pleas from various social justice groups, Congress has not amended the statute, causing courts to grapple with addressing the flaws of the Act. The result is a split among U.S. courts of appeals regarding not only the meaning of the Act but also the policy behind the penalty scheme. This Note addresses the unresolved circuit split and courts’ policy disagreements with the sentencing structure, ultimately advocating for a joint legislative and judicial solution that permits courts to embrace a modern comprehension of the drug problem in the United States while achieving a consistent federal policy.

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