The Crack vs. Heroin Project found that racial disparities rooted in the 1980s campaign against crack cocaine still persist today despite more compassionate rhetoric about the opioid crisis.
In a yearlong investigation, the Asbury Park Press and the USA TODAY NETWORK examined hundreds of thousands of arrest records and federal drug convictions nationwide over the past 30 years. Reporters found that black people are arrested far more frequently and punished more severely than white people for drug crimes, even though drug use within the two racial groups is roughly the same.
The racial gap in drug enforcement and sentencing is a byproduct of America’s punitive response to the crack crisis of the late ‘80s and the war on drugs it unleashed.
President Richard Nixon initiated the “war on drugs” in 1971 in order to criminalize black people. A decade later, the same deeply rooted presumption of guilt and dangerousness on which Nixon capitalized fueled a heavily punitive approach to crack cocaine.
Sensationalized stories of “crack babies” and violent “crackheads” routinely portrayed crack users as black, even though most crack users were and still are white, the Network reports. Crack users were painted as “dangerous degenerates” who were “scary and threatening” and needed to be locked up.
Former Major League baseball player Darryl Strawberry struggled publicly with drug addiction. He told the Network:
The stigma was so wrong for African Americans. They couldn’t get the help they needed because everybody looked at them as ‘less than.’
Policymakers responded with tough-on-crime laws, including the bipartisan Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which featured a 100-to-1 powder cocaine-to-crack disparity and dedicated three-quarters of $1.7 billion in federal funds to law enforcement and incarceration. In 1988, Congress provided hundreds of millions more for police and prisons, and made crack the only drug for which simple possession was a federal crime.
Fifteen states followed suit and enacted more severe penalties for crack offenses, with quantity disparities between powder cocaine and crack ranging from 2-to-1 in California to 100-to-1 in Iowa and North Dakota. To deter drug crime, Delaware discussed bringing back the whipping post and North Carolina officials wanted to revive the use of chain gangs.
“The racial implications of the 1986 law were devastating,” said Eric E. Sterling, then legal counsel to the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Crime, who helped write the 1986 bill.
From 1991 to 2001, nine times as many black people as white people went to federal prison for crack offenses, the Network found. Black people’s sentences for crack were double that for white crack offenders in federal court during that period: 148 months compared to 84 months.
Despite the more compassionate view of drug addiction today, racial inequities in drug arrests and sentencings persist.
When white people started getting addicted and dying from opioids, the narrative shifted. Those abusing heroin and prescription painkillers were routinely depicted in the media as sympathetic victims, Helena Hansen, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University, told the Network.
Public policy also shifted: three-quarters of the $7.4 billion Congress allotted in 2018 to fight the opioid epidemic went to research, treatment, and prevention rather than police and prisons.
But racial disparities persist. Ms. Hansen observed:
When the articles mentioned black and Latino opioid users, it was a crime report, their criminal history, their court appearances were described, their personal history was not described. There was not a humanizing biography of the people in the story.
In 2016, black people were still being arrested at a rate more than twice that of white people for cocaine, the Network found. Black people in 21 states were arrested at a rate at least three times higher than white people for narcotics and cocaine offenses combined in 2016.
Even though heroin and prescription opioids are more deadly, the Network found there were nearly four times more arrests for cocaine than opioid drugs in 2016. Far more black people (85,640) were arrested for cocaine than white people were arrested for heroin and other opioids (66,120) that year.
Policymakers have done little to address the racially discriminatory impact of the war on drugs. Congress reduced the disparity between powder cocaine and crack from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1 in 2010, but experts say that ratio has no basis in science and the Network found it perpetuates the double standard for people convicted of crack offenses in the federal court system, who are overwhelmingly black.
Meanwhile, people with convictions for nonviolent drug offenses and their families continue to suffer the consequences of an unfair system. At the federal level, people with drug offenses have been barred from receiving public assistance and housing benefits, federal student aid, and even veteran benefits. As the Network reports, drug convictions often prevent people from getting steady jobs, voting in elections, and living in desirable housing.