High court tries to crack cocaine case

Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:00 PM

The Supreme Court is earning its reputation as the high court.

The robed ones have deliberated over cocaine at least half a dozen times in recent years, taking up the drug in some form in each of the past four years. On Monday, the justices took another hit - and this one was particularly mind-blowing.

For one thing, the law they were interpreting - the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine - was changed by Congress last year, making the argument largely inconsequential.

For another, the argument hinged on chemical properties of cocaine derivatives - a technical discussion for which law school did not quite prepare the justices.

"Could you grind it up so that it's not rock-like anymore, so it's like a powder, and smoke it after it's in that form?" inquired Justice Samuel Alito.

"Can you get cocaine into a rock form without using a base?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor wanted to know.

Justice Anthony Kennedy had a question about the age and sun exposure of the coca leaf. Justice Elena Kagan invoked Richard Pryor's freebasing accident. Alito, who showed off by reciting the chemical formula for cocaine - C17H21NO4 - sought information on how many Americans smoke coca paste.

Justice Stephen Breyer had even less refined cocaine knowledge. "People sniff it often, I guess, if it's a salt, and that's bad," he said. "And then there's a kind that's worse. That's freebase or crack."

From the looks of them, the lawyers - Andrew Pincus, son of The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, and Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky - had as little firsthand experience with the substance as their questioners. But they shared what they could about rock and snow.

Breyer told Saharsky it was "very interesting" that she described coca paste as "being a yellow substance that came directly from grinding up leaves, something like that."

"The paste doesn't have to be yellow, just like crack doesn't have to be white or off-white," Saharsky explained. "There was evidence that a few years ago there were folks in Ohio that were coloring crack green for St. Patrick's Day." The justices smiled at this clever marketing technique. Saharsky further explained that the drug has been described as "a brown, soft, mushy, wet substance" and a "wet, gooey, cream-colored substance."

"What you end up with," Alito inquired, "is a gummy, yellowish solid called coca paste - that's correct?"

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