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5 Myths About That Demon Crack

Politicians repeatedly cited the association between crack and crime to justify Draconian laws. It is true that many crack abusers have committed crimes. At first, everyone assumed that this crack-crime link stemmed from the addict's craving for crack's potent high, but it turns out that the chain of causality is more complex. Studies of New York police records funded by the Department of Justice showed that most "crack-related homicides" had to do with the tinderbox context in which crack was sold: high unemployment, desperate poverty, hugely profitable illicit drug markets and easily available firearms. Crack is no longer in the media spotlight, but its use has persisted at nearly the levels of 20 years ago; meanwhile, violent crime has declined dramatically for a decade.

5. Harsh sentences for crack are necessary to deter "serious" and "major traffickers."

This was what Congress claimed when it passed the laws, but it defined "serious" trafficking as five grams -- less than one-sixth of an ounce. U.S. Sentencing Commission figures have long shown that more than three-fourths of those snagged are merely users and low-level sellers caught with tiny amounts. And they are overwhelmingly African Americans. Perversely, small-time sellers serve up to five times longer in prison than the cocaine-powder dealers caught with the same weight, who may well have supplied them.

These laws have helped increase the number of drug offenders in U.S. prisons nearly ninefold, from about 50,000 when President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 to more than 450,000 today. They have helped triple the prison population and given the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world. This costs U.S. taxpayers billions each year, but it has never made much of a dent in our most serious drug problems.

We cannot incarcerate our way to a "drug-free society."

Craig Reinarman is a professor of sociology at the University

of California at Santa Cruz and co-author of "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice."

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