Law Life: Powder/crack cocaine as different as Metallica and U2

By David Ziemer

The Daily Record Newswire

I recently met a very beautiful and intelligent young attorney who pretty much sets the standard for the perfect woman: in addition to the aforementioned qualities, she’s a member of the Federalist Society and her favorite band is Metallica.

In the course of our conversation, she remarked that she and her husband were going to a Metallica concert that weekend, even though her husband is “actually more of a U2 fan.”

For a man my age, that was astounding. Back in 1986, when Metallica released its epic album, “Master of Puppets”, no pretty metal girl would have given a U2 fan the time of day, much less married him. And the U2 crowd hated us even more than we hated them.

It got me thinking about what else has changed since 1986, and my mind turned to the federal sentencing guidelines for cocaine offenses.

Before 1986, there were basically three ways to take cocaine: snort it; mainline it (intravenously); or hotbase it (purify and smoke it). But in each case you started the process by buying powder cocaine.

People who snorted their cocaine would get the following effects: they would think that they were God’s gift to the world and be oblivious to the fact that everyone else thought they were boring as hell. But that was about it.

Those who hotbased or mainlined their cocaine would instead experience a very short, but incredibly intense rush that epitomized euphoria. The combination of intensity and short duration greatly increased the addictive properties of the drug.

Drug dealers soon discovered they could make more money if they sold cocaine already purified into base form, and the crack cocaine industry was born. The results for society were disastrous. Murder and crime in general skyrocketed.

And while a big stash of cocaine had always made it easier for a man to get lucky, a new class emerged in the wake of crack cocaine — the strawberry, who existed for the sole purpose of exchanging sex for crack.

Individuals who had managed to maintain steady employment for decades, despite recreational use of controlled substances, became useless overnight after discovering crack.

The public feared that children born to crack-addicted mothers would create a massive burden on the taxpayers for decades to come.

And so the next year, the mandatory minimum sentences went into effect, using a ratio that treated 1 gram of crack cocaine as equal to 100 grams of powder cocaine. Since then, thousands of young people with no prior criminal history, whose sole role in drug trafficking was being used as a mule to transport crack from one place to another, have been imprisoned for shockingly long sentences.

Finally, things are changing. The failed policy is coming to an end, something I applaud as much as anyone.

Nevertheless, I am dismayed by the rhetoric of many who support eliminating the crack/powder ratio. Crack and powder cocaine are “pharmacologically identical” is the mantra they repeat ad nauseaum.

A letter from the ACLU sent to U.S. senators says the assumptions that underlie the ratio “are now known to be false,” and that the ratio discriminates based on race.

Of course, no one who has ever met a user of crack cocaine could say with a straight face that there is no difference between crack and powder. There is a huge difference. Nevertheless, given the ease with which powder can be turned into base at the point of consumption, it is unjust to impose massively disparate sentences solely based on the drug’s form at the point of sale.

The crack/powder cocaine ratio was the result of ignorance on the part of well-meaning people who simply didn’t understand how easy it is for consumers to convert powder to cocaine base themselves.

While I support repealing the ratio, I deplore the dissemination of patently false statements about how crack is no worse than powder. Snorting and smoking cocaine are as different as Metallica and U2.

But I suppose the ACLU would say that I’m being naive, and that telling a few lies is a small price to pay to get results in politics.

In any event, let’s conclude with what Metallica has to say about the subject: “Pain monopoly/Ritual misery/Chop your breakfast on a mirror.” You’re not going to hear lyrics like that in any lousy U2 song.


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