Class, Crack and Powdered Cocaine

This is probably my worst essay yet, but it took me about two days to write. We could only cite 3-4 sources (no more, and no less). We’ll see how it goes.

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Class, Crack, and Powdered Cocaine

It is evident that class barriers exist between powder cocaine and crack cocaine users. Although cocaine is an illegal drug, the difference between its users is evident when it comes to the cost, distribution, incarceration rates, ethnicity, class and more. Shadowy Lines That Still Divide, by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, do not discuss these disparities within their article, even though the War on Drugs has been in effect since the days of President Nixon. Not until recently, has the program been altered by the Obama Administration to assist in deterring and treating those that are currently addicted, rather than focusing on imprisonment.

Sam Hananel with The Boston Globe states:

“…the White House yesterday announced a shift in national drug policy that would treat illegal drug use more as a public health issue and plunge more resources into prevention and treatment. The new drug control strategy boosts community-based antidrug programs, encourages health care providers to screen for drug problems before addiction sets in, and expands treatment beyond specialty centers to mainstream health care facilities. President Obama called the plan a ‘balanced approach to confronting the complex challenge of drug use and its consequences.’ His drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was more blunt. ‘Calling it a war really limits your resources,’ Kerlikowske said. ‘Looking at this as both a public safety problem and a public health problem seems to make a lot more sense’” (Hananel).

The incarceration and sentencing rates for the possession of 5g of crack cocaine can land any given individual a minimum of five years in prison. This would be fair; however, someone caught with powder cocaine would need to be caught with 500 grams of the substance in order to receive the same sentencing. Although they derive from the same plant, provide the same high, and costs roughly the same, the sentencing ratio is considerably mismatched at 100-to-1. When we pair this sentencing ratio with the demographics found associated with these substances, we come to realize that the African-Americans that are often affiliated with crack cocaine are more prone to the harsh sentencing than the white Caucasians that are most often caught with the powder form of cocaine. It can also be argued that the number of incarcerations is primarily due to the social structures and differences between African-Americans and white Caucasians. Since the discovery of this inequality, the 100-to-1 ratio has been substantially diminished by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. This act has enforced a new mandatory minimum that reduced the previous imbalance to 18-to-1. Regardless of how it’s viewed, this ratio still sides in favor of the powder cocaine users.

The African American community appears to be more social than the average white Caucasian, as they are willing to deal drugs outdoors, and deal with strangers and/or entire communities. White Caucasians, on the other hand, are most likely to use the substance within closed doors, and deal amongst people that they know. Regardless of these social differences, we still choose to give harsher sentences to the African American communities that are prone to poverty, drug-infested neighborhoods, and limited support from their community as a whole. White Caucasian cocaine users, however, are more difficult to find, convict, and often come from regular suburban or urban communities where support is readily available to them. These environments can also be used to mask cocaine users’ habits through their lifestyle, allowing them to use the drug recreationally with limited interruption, or influence by their communities. This goes to show that cocaine can be found from poverty-stricken communities to hilltop mansions, and consist of not only a very distinct color line, but economic class as well. This obvious color line can also be seen as a form of discrimination, as one demographic receives more leniency for using an illegal substance than others.

Another perspective that must be addressed is the poor’s inability to afford a lawyer that will defend them in a court of law. In our capitalistic society and government, lawyers are paid based on the number of trials they are able to win. This incentive gives lawyers a desire to fight for whoever they’re being paid to defend or prosecute. On the other side, however, most of the poor or working class are represented by a defense attorney. Although defense attorneys are not much different from lawyers, they serve as a more socialist and idealistic means of resolving problems and situations. These representatives do not have an incentive to win a case for their client, but are obligated to assist in the settlement of a case that’s in the best interests of their client and their state. This inevitably leads to a dilemma, as the poor African-American crack cocaine users are represented by defense attorneys, while the rich, white, upper class Caucasian Americans are represented by lawyers willing to fight for their clients.

Janny Scott and David Leonhardt clearly state in their article that:

“The once tight connection between race and class has weakened, too, as many African-Americans have moved into the middle and upper middle classes. Diversity of all sorts – racial, ethnic and gender – has complicated the class picture. And high rates of immigration and immigrant success stories seem to hammer home the point: The rules of advancement have changed. The American elite, too, is more diverse than it was. The number of corporate chief executives who went to Ivy League colleges has dropped over the past 15 years… Because of the economic earthquakes of the last few decades, a small but growing number of people have shot to the top” (Scott, pg. 5).

Unfortunately, I disagree with the notion that the connection between race and class has dissolved or has weakened. Sadly, African-Americans still make up the majority of the poverty-stricken individuals of this country. According to the Milwaukee Courier and the information they gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau, “In 2009, the poverty rate for African-Americans reached 25.8 percent – almost twice as high as that of the general population. One in three African American children now lives in families that have trouble providing for them.” (Poverty) This statement not only refutes the idea that the color line is dissolving, but sheds light onto the idea that it’s evident on who is at the bottom. The judicial system favors the upper middle class, and although a few more African-Americans are able to work their way up, socially and economically, does not change the fact that they still account for the majority of the poor working class. The class that receives the harshest penalties for using a modified drug that the upper middle class has been prone to using.

In most cases, after crack cocaine users have served their sentenced time, they are pushed back out onto the streets that sold them the drugs that got them into prison, or jail, in the first place. The upper middle class, powder cocaine users, however, are either able to afford a lawyer to keep them from serving time, or are able to cut their sentence time substantially. Even then, when they are released back into society, they have more options to them, than the working class individuals. Rehabilitation costs to these individuals are affordable. In some cases, their family is willing to pay for the costs of assessments, tests, psychologists and any other needs that may arise in order to get them help. The poverty-stricken individuals are less fortunate. They barely made enough money to feed their addiction, and the benefits of rehabilitation are limited by their need to find employment and a reliable support group. Even if a crack cocaine user was able to get the necessary help it’s possible that they would fall back into the same group, or social network or drug dealers, that assisted in developing their addiction in the first place.

Janny Scott and David Leonhardt’s article does not discuss or address the relation between class, drugs and the judicial system. It is evident that there are two types of cocaine users and that they both come from two different demographics. As Americans, we enjoy the thought that everyone is treated equally, and tried fairly, but this is far from the case. Instead, African-Americans from poor communities are given harsher sentences than white Caucasian Americans from upper middle class communities, who are given more leniency for their cocaine use. Cocaine is cocaine, whether it’s in rock form or powder form and all people should be tried and charged equally and fairly.

References available via request.