The anticrack rhetoric was to have other costly consequences. Congress, swept up in its own polemic, was the scene of heated debates about what to do with these heinous drug dealers who were enslaving the youth of the country. Federal penalties for drug dealing went up and up. In 1988 Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina) lobbied for a law dictating that, since crack was a hundred times more addictive than cocaine (no one knows where this statistic came from), possession of it should merit a penalty a hundred times greater. Unbelievably, it was passed. Today the penalty for possession of 5 grams of crack (worth about $350) is a mandatory five years in jail—equivalent to that for possession of half a kilogram of cocaine (worth about $10,000). And yet, as anyone who knows anything about cocaine will tell you, 500 grams of cocaine, when cooked up, will yield 500 grams—possibly even more—of crack.
The net result was that those found in possession of crack were sentenced to disproportionately heavy custodial sentences compared with those found with powder cocaine. This was to have profound effects, owing to the class of people who used crack versus the class of those who used cocaine. As Bruce Johnson explained to me at NDRI:
It is very clear that crack, more than any other substance, is primarily an African American low-income substance. And its sale in public places is very much dominated by African Americans (although there are some Latinos involved in it, as well). Cocaine powder tends to be more controlled and proportionally in the populations is more evenly distributed among the people who use illegal drugs. It's just that whites don't get involved that often in crack.
By 1989, 46 per cent of all arrests in New York City were for crack possession or dealing. Since powder-cocaine traffickers and users tended to be white (they could afford to buy cocaine in bulk) and crack users black (it was sold in small quantities cheaply), federal courts found themselves banging up blacks and members of other ethnic minorities as if there were no tomorrow. As prison numbers spiralled [sic] (doubling in the 1980s alone), so more and more blacks ended up in jail for possession or low-level dealing. At the time of writing, the US prison population has just hit 2 million—up from 300,000 in 1970—of whom 500,000 are in for drug offences. Currently African Americans, who make up just 12 per cent of the US population, constitute 50 per cent of the US prison population. Blacks are arrested for drug offences at six times the rate of whites, so one-third of the black US population is under criminal supervision of one form or another. Crack is to blame for much of this. The 100:1 ratio crack law amounts to a form of institutionalized racism. This has been demonstrated by numerous academics and experts (recently even the US Drug Tsar, General Barry McCaffrey, lobbied for cocaine-crack sentencing parity) by Congress repeatedly votes against repealing it: no one wants to appear soft on drugs. Besides, banging up black crack users can hardly do that much harm, can it? It keeps them off the streets, after all. Once again, cocaine becomes a race issue.Streatfeild, Dominic. Cocaine : an unauthorized biography. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Picador, 2001. pp.312–313. Print.