In the 1980s, crack cocaine was at the forefront of the illegal drug crisis in the United States due to heightened media attention surrounding it. This perpetuated fears of the drug being spread out of inter-cities, which were predominantly African-American in demographics, to suburban white communities. Because of this fear, the process of the implementation by Congress of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 happened at a very rapid pace. This pace promoted systematic oppression and the disproportionate rate of incarceration within minority communities. A significant aspect of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was the provision of establishing mandatory minimums. A mandatory minimum takes place when an individual is convicted of a crime and is required to be imprisoned for a specific amount of time. Not only did this created a 100:1 sentencing disparity but also strict sentencing parameters that took the court’s ability of interpretation and judging on a case by case basis. Crack cocaine was deemed a more volatile substance, prominent within African American communities, as opposed to powder cocaine which surfaced more often in white areas. The baseline punishment for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine and 5 grams of crack cocaine were sentenced to the same 5-year minimum.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was implemented to improve previous federal drug laws that would “crackdown” on the illegal use and sale of drugs, primarily cocaine and crack cocaine (Drug and Crime Policy Analyst Lisa N. Sacco). Before the mid-20th-century strict drug policies had not yet taken shape, as the regulation of drug responsibility had fallen on local law enforcement. Ending the 20th century “Congress continued to pass drug control legislation and further criminalized drug abuse” (Sacco 4). In comparison to previous policies such as The Harrison Act of 1914, which instructed manufacturers and distributors of opium and cocaine to register with the US Treasury and pay a tax and keep a record of all sales and distribution. Later, the criminalization of drugs skyrocketed through Reagan’s presidency and was built upon Nixon’s previous policies, such as the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), established in 1973 is a single focus drug agency. Responsible for the enforcement and collaboration with state, local and foreign authorities to combat the sale and use of drugs.
The guidelines of federal drug sentences judges were required to follow were constructed by the US Sentencing Commission. This was based on “(1) the quantity and type of drug involved, (2) whether the offense involved violence and (3) the criminal history of the offender” (Sacco 10). This created a 100 to 1 sentencing ratio which unfairly impacted black people and other minorities due to crack cocaine being more prevalent in their communities. Congress then presented justification to the sentencing ratio stating:
“(1) the addictive quality of crack cocaine, (2) that crack cocaine was associated with violent crime, (3) that the use of crack cocaine among pregnant women posed threats to children in utero, (4) that more young people were using crack cocaine, and (5) that the low cost of crack cocaine made it especially prevalent and more likely to be consumed in large quantities.” (Beaver 2546)
In reality, there are no major differences between the negative effects or chemical properties of crack cocaine and cocaine. Yet Congress constructed enough justification to legally incarcerate disproportionate amounts of America’s black population in comparison to their white peers.
Media coverage and inaccurate portrayals of crack cocaine influenced and obscured one’s overall understanding of the drug situation in the US. This lead to the explicit decision to treat crack cocaine differently than powdered cocaine, and developing the previously mentioned 100 to 1 sentencing ratio. Author Alyssa L. Beaver states that a majority of legislators were in favor of the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, as crack created a greater epidemic. For example, a senator from Florida Lawton Chiles recognized “crack as a distinct and separate drug from cocaine hydrochloride with specified amounts of five grams and fifty grams for enhanced penalties” (Beaver 2547). In contrast, some senators argued that the Act focused too much on crack cocaine as its punishments were too harsh in comparison to its counterparts drugs for example:
Senator Daniel Evans of Washington stated that because drug use peaked in the late 1970s, “there is no compelling evidence that the overall problem is significantly worse now than it has been for the last decade.”‘ 37 Citing a study by the Federal Drug Administration, Evans noted that “crack . . . is not the drug of choice for most users. (Beaver 2547)
Supporters of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act responded to Evan’s statements by arguing that the studies that they used to isolate crack cocaine where through 1980-1984 which was before the height of the crack epidemic. Drafters of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act believed the opponent’s view would be vindicated through its results and overall approach to eliminate the presence of drugs in “all communities”.
Overall Congress is responsible for the drafting, guidelines, and implementation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act giving judges strict universal parameters to follow when issuing sentences for drug charges. The Judges only leeway in sentencing circumstances were when they went beyond the mandatory minimum of 5 years.
The parameters of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act that Congress implemented directly created sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. Consequently, individuals who were subject to drug charges experienced dehumanization and no sympathy under the guidelines of the law, which can be attributed to excessive and racially biased punishments. There are copious examples of this unlawful form of sentencing that can be shown in various legal cases involving the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its legacy. In U.S v. Shawn A. Dumas, an African American male was charged with possession of crack base (crack cocaine) with the intent to distribute and was punished under the Sentencing Guidelines concerning the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The defendant’s representation appealed his sentence as Dumas believed his punishment violated his equal protection rights in relation to the 5th Amendment and the Due Process Clause as an American, and more specifically an African American as these provisions targeted minority demographics. However, “The Court of Appeals, David R. Thompson, Circuit Judge, held that sentencing provisions that punish possession of crack cocaine more severely than possession of powder cocaine do not violate equal protection.” (US v. Dumas). Meaning that courts had no power in reducing one’s sentence even if the penalties were racially biased or unjustly harsh.
Incarcerations for crack cocaine were much more prevalent due to it being at the forefront of the 1.7 billion dollar budget for the United States War on Drugs. Even though white people and African-Americans used crack cocaine at similar rates, the mandatory minimums created unequal incarceration statistics of nonviolent drug crimes which specifically impacted poor African Americans due to higher levels of police within their communities. Defendants challenged the Acts provisions, specifically the 21 U.S.C. section 841, this imposed more extreme penalties and created the 100:1 sentencing ratio which was believed to constitutionally violate one’s basic rights of equal protection. These challenges [appeals] were continually denied by the Court as they argued:
Statute imposing harsher penalties on defendants convicted of offenses involving cocaine base as opposed to powder cocaine did not discriminate on the basis of race or violate equal protection, despite contention that penalties had a disproportionate adverse impact on African-Americans (US v McMurry).
This was even though the Anti-Drug Abuse Act itself was constructed and implemented based upon inaccurate and racially biased information. One could argue that this was simply overlooked. On the other hand, more controversial perspectives suggest that it was planned and systematically implemented by Congress to oppress minority communities to maintain their power and political agendas, by using crack cocaine as a scapegoat. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was created by the Sentencing Commission which “is an independent agency of the judicial branch.169 The Commission’s objectives include, guiding federal courts in issuing sentences, advising Congress and the President in creating an effective crime policy” (Beaver 2550). Specifically advising Congresses in light of crack and powdered cocaine reporting their opposition toward the sentencing ratios. Still, by 1993 the Sentencing Commission continued urging Congress to eliminate their penalty scheme as these disparities were still relevant and created by the original Anti-Drug Abuse Act but were still “urgent and compelling” issues.
Overall, the implementation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Laws destroyed the Federal Justice system, as it did not “address” the drug issues within the US. The rapid creation of the provisions of the law was not based on any “real world” evidence, but instead on assumption and fear. This proves the ineffectiveness of the law as the “era of mass incarceration has profoundly damaged American society, particularly for minorities, the poor and residents of inner cities. Millions are now unable to hold steady jobs, maintain housing, keep their families together or vote.” (Schuppe 6). A majority of those incarcerated were individuals who committed nonviolent drug crimes such as usage or possession, ultimately not combating the major circulation of narcotics within America. Less attention was given to large traffickers and cartel leaders who were the backbone of the overall drug trade in the US. Statistics have shown according to ABC News and analysis of the Sentencing Project data that in 1985, a year before the implementation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, there were roughly 35,000 federal inmates, with 9,000 who were incarcerated on drug charges. Today the federal prison population has dramatically increased and exceeds 190,000 inmates, with more than 80,000 serving due to drug charges. About 75% of these individuals are either Hispanic or African American descent, as this information is supported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In counting both federal and state inmates there is in total more than 1.5 million today, which has ultimately diminished overall crime rates at the expense of many people’s lives.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was implemented under the Obama Administration was a pivotal step in criminal justice reformation because it addressed the major lasting negative effects of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The Fair Sentencing Acts’ goal was to reduce the overall sentencing disparity that mandatory minimums created and address the 100:1 ratio. After the Fair Sentencing Act was implemented, the sentencing disparity dropped to 18:1 for offenses between powdered and crack cocaine. A year later the Sentencing Commission also determined that the new laws of the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied retroactively which gave roughly 12,000 people 85% of whom were African Americans to have their cases and sentences reevaluated with the possibility of reduction. These acts of reform were also particularly important as they tried to restore trust and confidence in the criminal justice system within minority communities. The 18:1 ratio was a good start, but the two drugs have the same chemical properties and damaging effects, just into different physical forms Meaning that there should not be any disparities between the two and until this fact and other issues of race and discrimination are addressed, the criminal justice system will continue to be viewed as unjust and oppressive by those directly affected by it.
Aclu. “Fair Sentencing Act.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 21 June 2012,.
Beaver , Alyssa L. Fordham Law Review . “Getting A Fix on Cocaine Sentencing Policy”: Reforming The Sentencing Scheme Of The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, vol. 78, 1 Oct. 2019, pp. 2533–2570.
“Mandatory Minimums and Sentencing Reform.” Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, 29 Sept. 2019, www.cjpf.org/mandatory-minimums.
Sacco, Lisa N. “Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends.” Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends, 2 Oct. 2014, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43749.pdf.
Oscar McMurray v. United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit. Nos. 93–3694, 93–3695 and 93–3748. United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. 1994
Schuppe, Jon. “30 Years after Basketball Star Len Bias’ Death, Its Drug War Impact Endures.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 19 June 2016.
Shawn A. Dumas v. United States Court of Appeals, No. 94-30313. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. 1995.
Vagins, Deborah J., and Jesselyn McCurdy. “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law.” Aclu.org, Oct. 2006,