Shorter Sentences for Crack Cocaine

A couple of years ago, we wrote a column about crack cocaine, which ended with a discussion of the federal sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder cocaine:

This disparity has often been called racist since it disproportionately imprisons blacks. In fact, the law probably made sense at the time, when a gram of crack did have far more devastating social costs than a gram of powder cocaine. But it doesn’t anymore. Len Bias [whose death inspired the new crack guidelines] would now be 40 years old, and he would have long outlived his usefulness to the Boston Celtics. It may be time to acknowledge that the law inspired by his death has done the same.

I am sure that we had absolutely nothing to do with it, but it was announced on Thursday that federal sentencing guidelines for crack have in fact been reduced, albeit slightly:

The new U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines for those possessing 5 grams or more of crack cocaine are prison terms of 51 months to 63 months, down from the old range of 63 months to 78 months. The new range for offenders possessing at least 50 grams is 97 months to 121 months in prison, down from 121 months to 151 months. Those ranges apply for first-time crack-cocaine convictions.

It’s possible that a more drastic change is on the way:

The sentencing commission is urging Congress to repeal the mandatory prison term for simple possession and increase the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger five-year and 10-year mandatory minimum prison terms as a way to focus on major drug traffickers.

I wonder if any lawmakers read our recent quorum on marijuana. And I wonder if someday we’ll be blogging about the changes in those laws too.

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COMMENTS: 81


  1. Alec says:

    Wait…I’m confused. I thought Len Bias’ death was caused by powder cocaine. Why would his death have inspired the crack guidelines?

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  2. Alec says:

    Wait…I’m confused. I thought Len Bias’ death was caused by powder cocaine. Why would his death have inspired the crack guidelines?

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  3. exprop says:

    Stephen
    Have you ever done a full blown discussion of the economics of decriminalizing drug use?

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  4. exprop says:

    Stephen
    Have you ever done a full blown discussion of the economics of decriminalizing drug use?

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  5. Harlan says:

    Good. Reduce prison terms, and use the money saved to increase the number of cops on the street, and the number of arrests for sale of narcotics. The deterrent effect of a 5-year sentence is minimal if you know there’s little chance you’re going to get caught. Basic utility theory.

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  6. Harlan says:

    Good. Reduce prison terms, and use the money saved to increase the number of cops on the street, and the number of arrests for sale of narcotics. The deterrent effect of a 5-year sentence is minimal if you know there’s little chance you’re going to get caught. Basic utility theory.

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  7. Chuck says:

    Alec:

    You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine. There is no question but that this error in fact helped fuel the original disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

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  8. Chuck says:

    Alec:

    You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine. There is no question but that this error in fact helped fuel the original disparity between powder and crack cocaine.

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  9. Lauren says:

    It’s good that they are going to focus more on major drug traffickers, but how to do they plan to do that?

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  10. Lauren says:

    It’s good that they are going to focus more on major drug traffickers, but how to do they plan to do that?

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  11. Kurt says:

    Chuck/Alec:

    It doesn’t work to revise history using today’s drug chemistry. In the time Len went down, powder was the most available means of creating “freebase” — the antecedent to crack. For years, if you wanted crack in any quantity you had to make your own from powder. These days, no one would make freebase – it’s dangerous – they’d just pick up crack.

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  12. Kurt says:

    Chuck/Alec:

    It doesn’t work to revise history using today’s drug chemistry. In the time Len went down, powder was the most available means of creating “freebase” — the antecedent to crack. For years, if you wanted crack in any quantity you had to make your own from powder. These days, no one would make freebase – it’s dangerous – they’d just pick up crack.

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  13. EK says:

    “You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine.”

    Well he was black so he obviously used crack cocaine.

    (sarcasm)

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  14. EK says:

    “You are correct that Len Bias died from using powder cocaine, but the assumption at the time was that he used crack cocaine.”

    Well he was black so he obviously used crack cocaine.

    (sarcasm)

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  15. JayAre says:

    The post concerning freebase is a valid observation. The Len Bias tragedy was a high profile wakeup call that reached out to diverse cultures.It was leveraged accordingly for sure. But that’s not a bad thing because too many Americans don’t pay much heed to an increase in the rate of lethal OD’s among poor folks. If it was erroneous to assume Len used Crack rather than powder(freebased or not),that’s an interesting bit of esoterica but of little meaning in evolution of the law …because people were, in fact, showing up dead from Crack all over the Country. Legal and medical authorities knew this and were freaking well before the LB incident I basically abhor the whole “War on Drugs” debacle but find no fault in the assumption that Crack is way more evil than powder at street level. A sentence differential was logical for those “authorities” already working scared and in punitive mode. But they unfortunately started down that path with a bent for draconian sentences already in place and the untidy sociological results destined to unfold later were only exacerbated by the Crack vs powder “differentials”.

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  16. JayAre says:

    The post concerning freebase is a valid observation. The Len Bias tragedy was a high profile wakeup call that reached out to diverse cultures.It was leveraged accordingly for sure. But that’s not a bad thing because too many Americans don’t pay much heed to an increase in the rate of lethal OD’s among poor folks. If it was erroneous to assume Len used Crack rather than powder(freebased or not),that’s an interesting bit of esoterica but of little meaning in evolution of the law …because people were, in fact, showing up dead from Crack all over the Country. Legal and medical authorities knew this and were freaking well before the LB incident I basically abhor the whole “War on Drugs” debacle but find no fault in the assumption that Crack is way more evil than powder at street level. A sentence differential was logical for those “authorities” already working scared and in punitive mode. But they unfortunately started down that path with a bent for draconian sentences already in place and the untidy sociological results destined to unfold later were only exacerbated by the Crack vs powder “differentials”.

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  17. jimbob says:

    Some wild guesses:

    Both have commonly used names which are synonymous with ‘two fathoms’. Is she called ‘the twelve foot grandmother’ or something?

    Was she trained as a boat’s pilot?

    Did she write a book about a boy called Tom Sawyer?
    Or an autobiography called ‘life on the mississipi’?

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  18. Corey says:

    They had a granddaughter who married an economist.

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  19. Dustin says:

    Since I’m unable to make one of those three circle Venn diagrams that are on this blog, you will have to use your imagination.

    Circle 1: Wrote in a pen name
    Circle 2: Vegetarian
    Circle 3: Support Labor Unions
    Center Intersection: Jeannette’s grandmother and Mark Twain

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  20. Otto says:

    They both arrived and departed with Halley’s comet?

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  21. Beerzie says:

    They both smoke(d) cigars.

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  22. Frank says:

    Mustaches?

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  23. mike r says:

    Got it. Both can pilot riverboats.

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  24. mgroves says:

    They’ve both encountered Whoopi Goldberg in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

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  25. Josh says:

    She was born the day he died?

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  26. Ray says:

    Are they both buried in Elmira, NY?

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  27. Eric says:

    They were both born in Florida, MO

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  28. AK says:

    Lived in Hannibal, Missouri

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  29. anne says:

    Both are referenced in the same sentence on this blog

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  30. PJM says:

    Both were reported to have died prehumously (not sure if that’s a word, but it flows much better than “while still alive”).

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  31. Michael D says:

    Both have the middle name Langhorne?

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  32. Angryman says:

    Who are two people who have never been in my kitchen?

    Fact!

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  33. Jeremy says:

    Both had dopey grandson-in-laws?

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  34. Lincoln says:

    they both had outrageously hot granddaughters. WAY TO GO STEVEN!!!!!

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  35. Reneka says:

    Both have a granddaughter named Jeannette?

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  36. eric in Vancouver says:

    Both went by pseudonyms that were at least loosely based on their occupation/interests?

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  37. Woodbine 4 Life says:

    They were both born and died with comets, although not the same comet.

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  38. Sora says:

    Both redheads?

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  39. Barb says:

    Both speak German?

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  40. Jerry Stephens says:

    birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri

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  41. Dane Cao says:

    I think they shared ANTI-SLAVERY views.they both were againt slavery,well, sort of, however obliquely.

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  42. Tommy_Grand says:

    Both athiests?

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  43. Dane Cao says:

    Grandma was born on April 21, 1910,the day Mark Twain passed away.

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  44. Adam says:

    Freemasons?

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  45. scott says:

    Both of them were shocked to discover that dicks.com is not a good place to buy running shoes.

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  46. Ron says:

    Ok, let me guess:

    They were both born and dead the same year Halleys Comet passed near the earth (happens once every 76 years).

    The legend on Twain goes as far as to suggest he was both born and dead just when Halley passed, but as an answer to your quiz I say your wife’s granmother became 76 and was also born/dead under Halleys comet, at least the same year.

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  47. caoruizhang says:

    1.both were anti-imperialists.belonged to similar group.something like that…

    2.born and died when HALLEYS streaked across the sky.Very mysterious and holly,if you ask me…

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  48. arlani says:

    genes?

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  49. Liz Welsh says:

    Rumors of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

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  50. alison says:

    Daughters named Jean?

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  51. Chris says:

    I can’t tell if my last went through so sorry if this is a dupe,

    but they were both colorblind

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  52. Curt says:

    They are both mentioned in your quiz.

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  53. Bob V says:

    Both have breathed the same molecule of oxygen.

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  54. Ginger says:

    Both had a fondness for Helen Keller. Or rather, your wife’s grandmother was Helen Keller (now don’t go posting comments about how Helen Keller doesn’t have kids, I know). Also, what did Helen Keller get for Christmas? Polio, she had everything else.

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  55. Shan says:

    Missouri?

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  56. JD says:

    They both have (had) furry mustaches.

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  57. MM says:

    Mark Twain IS your wife Jeannette’s grandmother, (pre little-publicized sex change).

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  58. psychohistorian says:

    Both dead?

    Morbid, but worth a guess.

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  59. Toni says:

    Wrote books while lying in bed?

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  60. Toni says:

    Both invented a board game?

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  61. dbaum says:

    They shared the same parents (i.e. were brother and sister).

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  62. yep says:

    both lived in Elmira, NY

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  63. Mayuresh Gaikwad says:

    1. Both never read a book called “Freakonomics”
    2. Halley’s comet has already been mentioned by some readers before me.
    3. Names, pen-names, middle names have been mentioned by some readers before me.
    4. Mark Twain died on the exact same day in the exact same place as your wife’s grandmother was born. (21-ARP-1910 in Redding, CT)
    5. Both wrote books titled “The Great American Novel”
    6. Mark Twain had a daughter named Jean. Jeannete’s grandmother too has a daughter named Jean (your wife’s mother) and your wife has got her name as Jeanette (small Jean)
    7. Many more can be cooked up just by reading the Wikipedia entry for Mark Twain. Does your wife’s grandmother too have a wikipedia page?

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  64. mat says:

    3 guesses

    both were riverboat captains
    both had the middle name Langhorne
    I’m not positive but statistically, they’re both white

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  65. Craig says:

    I agree with Otto and Ron, I believe Clemens/Twain was born in 1835 (a year Halleys passed) and died in 1910 (a year Halleys passed again). I therefore suspect that Jeanettes Grandmother was born in 1910 and died in 1986.

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  66. Erin Kaplan says:

    Does she also have a dorm named after her at the University of Missorui?

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  67. Nick says:

    I want to make sure I word this exactly right: They both were granted patents on this date in history, December 19th. And most likely it was both of their first patents.

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  68. Michael Pitts says:

    Both were the sixth of 7 children

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  69. Snot Rag Dave says:

    I would guess that Grandma is a vegetarian.

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  70. Jenn says:

    They both were named Samuel Langhorne Clemens… Oh, wait, wait. That can’t be right…

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  71. Bill Marcy says:

    Both lived in Elmira.

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  72. Gokay says:

    Both lived in Hartford CT.

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  73. PJW says:

    Nothing

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  74. ruthie says:

    Reports of their deaths are greatly exaggerated?

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  75. Jackie says:

    A few people have already mentioned the patent, which I think is the most reasonable conclusion. I just doubt that the December 19th correlation is only a coincidence. It would be even better, however, if Jeanette’s grandmother had come up with an idea for something similar to suspenders while laying in bed (as Twain/Clemens did). Since I think that may be asking for a bit too much I guess I’ll have to get my Freakonomics schwag on a later date.

    On a different note – I’m surprised that no one mentioned Stevenlevitt.com during the whole Coase Theorem debate, a website which I came upon while searching for information on your wife’s grandmother. I know, creepy. My point is that the ads lining the side of the site are all for freakonomics and the page’s Jewish author even has a tab at the top titled “The Economic Impact”. For about 10 minutes I was trying to figure out why you said your wife’s name was Jeanette when “your” website called her Robin and was full of pictures of a baby named Ethan. (It is possible that someone did mention this and I just missed it, of course. It is also possible that that actually is your website in which case I am about to feel like a huge dumbass. Still, I’m pretty sure that creating aliases for all of your family members is a little far to go in the name of security. I also find it hard to believe that your only economic reference would be a calculator showing the real-time cost of the Iraq War.)

    Oh I really like Lincoln’s answer to this quiz by the way.

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  76. Larry says:

    They both had grandchildren

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  77. Patrick says:

    Anagrams

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  78. Matt says:

    Otto beat me to it: Halley’s comet. Your Grandma-in-law, 1914-1986, is my guess.

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  79. peg says:

    both published their obituary while they were still living!

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  80. Ella says:

    I have never heard of this word before, so I am unable to discuss on this topic. Sorry Please.

    ———
    Ella

    Crack Cocaine

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  81. Ella says:

    I have never heard of this word before, so I am unable to discuss on this topic. Sorry Please.

    ———
    Ella

    Crack Cocaine

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