It's time to equalize cocaine sentences

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Oct. 29 editorial "The right sentence" discussed legislation I introduced to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Under current law, five grams of crack (the equivalent of five packets of sugar) triggers the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams (more than one pound) of powder.

The editorial wrongly argued that crack is more addictive and associated with more violence than powder cocaine. It is that flawed logic that justified the original sentencing disparity.

Countless studies have shown that there's little difference in the physiological impact of crack and powder cocaine. The American Medical Association reports that "the physiological and psychoactive effects of cocaine are similar" regardless of whether the form is crack or powder.

Furthermore, the U.S. Sentencing Commission report you cited actually found that 10 percent of crack offenders were involved in violence -- not 25 percent, as the editorial asserted, using a different definition of "violence" -- while 6 percent of powder offenders were involved in violence. That 4-percentage-point difference hardly justifies a disparity in mandatory minimum sentences.

The editorial also failed to note that my bill would significantly increase penalties for violent and large-scale drug traffickers, refocusing limited federal resources on the worst offenders.

Dick Durbin, Washington

The writer is a Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois.

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