In 1986, lawmakers became alarmed by reports of urban crime waves linked to crack, then a new and highly addictive form of cocaine. News reports were full of images of writhing “crack babies” deeply addicted to the drug through their mothers, says the Los Angeles Times. The death that June of basketball star Len Bias galvanized Washington into passing extraordinarily strict drug laws. Selling as little as 5 grams of crack would bring a mandatory five-year federal prison term, with no possibility of parole. Now those laws are being questioned, and in some cases relaxed, in the face of evidence that some predictions about the ravages of crack were overblown — and that harsh penalties were ineffective.
Crack has the same effect on the body over time as powder cocaine, and poses “less risk” than exposure to alcohol or cigarettes, said Harolyn Belcher, a developmental pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute for disabled children in Baltimore. The stiff penalties also did not curb violent crime. Homicides rose by about 25 percent nationwide from 1985 to 1993. “It was counterproductive,” said criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University. “The replacements that got recruited into the markets to replace the people that were being shipped off to prison were a lot more dangerous than the people they replaced.” Despite the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recent action relaxing sentencing guidelines for crack, Congress has not enacted changes. Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor of public policy and a drug policy expert, said: “Nobody [in Congress] wants to go home and explain why they let the crack dealers out of prison.”