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June 4, 2006

Noticing different legislative reactions to meth and crack

The June 5th edition of Congressional Quarterly Weekly (which is not available on-line) includes a terrific cover story by Seth Stern entitled "Meth vs. Crack: Different Legislative Approaches."  As the title suggests, the article explores the noticeable difference between the legislative reaction to the "crack epidemic" 20 years ago and the "meth epidemic" today.  Here are just a few snippets of a long and very informative article [update: that can now be accessed here]:

When Rep. Elijah E. Cummings visits rural communities in the Midwest that have been ravaged by methamphetamine use, he hears stories of despair and damage not unlike those he heard during the crack epidemic of the 1980s....  The similarities exist despite fundamental differences between the populations affected by the two drugs. Meth is used mostly by white people in rural areas, while the epicenters of the crack epidemic were the African-American communities of the inner cities. "If you were to close your eyes and listen to how they talk about the effect on communities, how it breaks up families and drives down property values, you would swear they were in any urban community" during crack's heyday, Cummings says.

What's different this time are the solutions that his congressional colleagues are promoting. The first comprehensive federal anti-meth law, enacted this year, focuses on cutting off the supply of the chemical ingredients used to make the drug — not on toughening punishments for dealers or users.  "There seems to be more of an emphasis on shutting down these meth labs and trying to figure out ways to treat these addicts and then get them back into flow of society," says Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.  "We don't get for crack or heroin that kind of support for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation."...

Lawmakers in both parties consistently characterize meth addicts in more sympathetic terms than they describe crack addicts, and they are showing far less enthusiasm for imprisoning users than at the height of the crack problem two decades ago....  Although lawmakers almost always rebut the notion, their own rhetoric suggests that race is an essential — albeit, perhaps subconscious — reason they are treating the two drug epidemics differently.

Some sociologists and criminologists say the racial component is obvious. "The difference is, meth is a white drug," says Daniel F. Wilhelm of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce racially disparate prosecutions. "You don't see any pictures of young black men and women described as the face of meth," said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which advocates for overhauling sentencing law — a reference to the before-and-after mug shots that sheriffs' offices and lawmakers often display to highlight the physical toll of meth addiction.

[L]istening to the way members of Congress talk about meth users and the images they invoke to portray the problem leaves observers such as Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz convinced that many lawmakers at least talk about drug users differently when they're "drawn from the good old boy segment of our society, the us rather than the them."...

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Comments

Thanks for bringing an off-line think piece to our attention. My knee-jerk reaction was an unqualified agreement with the premise, as a critic of the drug war and public defender in NYC who has never once had client busted for meth. But I do wonder if it is even conceivable that we learned something from the crack epidemic, that we have noticed the insane overcrowding of our prisons?

Posted by: MCF | Jun 5, 2006 10:25:36 AM

I'm in Tennessee, and I don't think that fear of overcrowding prisons is the main reason for the difference in crack & meth. I think that the main difference in response to these two epidemics flows from the fact that one epidemic is rural and the other urban. When drugs cause problems in cities, the impact is easier to show, and it gets the attention of the media (who almost exclusively operate out of urban centers) and, therefore, politicians. For this reason, the racial factor is probably more likely to be over-emphasized in looking at these situations, not even considering the fact that the media and politicians have institutional incentives to capitalize on racial differences in our society. Obviously, I have no way of knowing the extent of the real underlying racism involved, but I am pretty sure that the issue is much more complicated than crack:black/meth:white.

Mark

Posted by: Mark | Jun 5, 2006 11:19:13 AM

To say that the differing approach to stopping the meth epidemic is base on race is an irresponsible comment at a minimun. There is a simple reason why an apporach to cut off the supply of ingredients necessary for meth can work. There are only 8 or 9 factories in the world that produce ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Meth cannot be "cooked" without one of those two chemicals (and yes, they are the active ingredient in Sudafed). Crack, on the other hand, is derived from cocaine which is natually grown. It is clearly much easier to monitor and control the flow from 8 or 9 factories than from Central and South America.
The largest bias that I've seen in the meth story is how long it has taken the government to realize the extent of the problem. And that is probably attributed most to the fact that meth hits rural communities and has only recently begun to have a major impact on states far enough east for Washingon to notice.

Posted by: Keith | Jun 6, 2006 1:38:47 PM

Keith, those precursor bans you favor don't work. All that happened was the Mexican cartels began supplying meth instead of local producers, which is a WORSE outcome - the price went down and the purity went up.

More to the point, I think race is a factor in the differing approach between crack and meth in at least this regard: in places like Texas and Tennessee, the rural white poor who favor home-made meth in the South are the Republican Party's electoral base - the heart of Nixon's "Southern strategy." You don't get far in politics imprisoning your base, or your base's relatives, friends, etc., so the softer treatment models are more likely to be used. Many in those same constituencies didn't give a damn when the defendants were mostly black, is the sorry truth of it.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 7, 2006 9:37:34 AM

It might have helped prevoiusly to point out that I work as a prosecutor in a small, rural community with an ever growing meth problem. Granted, my sample to draw any conclusions from is rather small, but I can tell you that there is absolutely no hesitation in sentencing meth users here in southern Ohio. In fact, they tend to be prosecuted more vigorously due to the severity of the problem.
And as for precursor bans not working... how long has it been since you heard of a qualude addict? Seriously though, Frontline did an excellent piece on the meth epidemic a few months back that does a better job than I ever could of explaining the problem, and the problems associated with some of the solutions solutions.

Posted by: Keith | Jun 7, 2006 3:18:32 PM

I forgot to mention that I agree that at one point, the cartels started buying the precursors direct from the factories. But considering the fact that you and I know that, I would assume that you also know that that pipeline was shut off and now most meth is cooked in small batches from cold medicide acquired by individuals. As medications with pseudoephedrine are more and more being restricted from being sold over the counter, the amount of meth on the street and its purity is continuing to go down. If we could get the drug companies to use alternative decongestants, meth might go the way of the qualude. We can only hope.

Posted by: Keith | Jun 7, 2006 3:27:54 PM

Keith, I'm afraid you're wrong about precursor bans limiting meth production, anywhere. As a prosecutor, I'm surprised you aren't aware that the "pipeline" hasn't been shut off at all. In fact, addiction and violence have increased as a result of precursor bans, see:

http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2005/11/pseudoephedrine-restrictions-raise.html

See also this NYT article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/23/national/23meth.html?ex=1149825600&en=480a851986ffade0&ei=5070

Best,

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jun 7, 2006 10:16:13 PM

I believe that the differential treatment of crack and methane would certainly be indicative of a racial bias, if the following is true. Congress atbitrailly differentiated crack from powder cocaine in law. Thus, first-offenders get the same five-year penalty for dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine, averaging in price anywhere from $32,500 to $50,000, as they do for five grams of crack, averaging in price anywhere from $225 to $750; and the consensus is that crack cocaine is most popular among black Americans. Now, if meth laws fail to similarly differentiate between powder and crystal meth, then it would surely indicate bias. Surely, the decision to differentiate between crack and powder cocaine, a decision heavily influenced by crack’s association with black Americans, and not powder and crystal meth, is one that indicates a racial bias. However, I am not sure if that the law doesn't in fact differentiate between crystal and powder meth

Posted by: Jonathan Howard | May 12, 2007 4:52:56 AM

Oh im a student, and im researching the topic

Posted by: Jonathan Howard | May 12, 2007 4:54:37 AM

First off crack/cocaine is a drug. It is grown on the earth. Then it is distrubted among crack/cocaine users.
Meth is what you want to refer to as a drug. However Meth is not grown as crack/cocaine or marijuanna. Hello! Think about it. How is Meth a drug? Okay you have meth labs that use cough medicines and many other over the counter drugs that are ENTIRELY LEGAL to use for illness. These items are NOT ILLEGAL, or the FDA would not have approved them for use> As you see I am making a fact based on what prosecuters would like to make an issue of Meth as a drug.
If it is such a drug then everyone who purchases these cough medicince and such should all be imprisoned for the mandatory only because they will get HIGH off of INGREDIENTS that is used to make METH. Then the ENTIRE NATION should be incarcerated. So instead of refering to to meth as a drug people are CREATING using approved over the counter drugs. You should realize people are trying to get higher off medications by making them stronger. Such as people who are addicited to pain medications i.e vicodin, oxycotin, kolanipin, prescription drugs that get you buzzed and high. Why are you people so ignorant. You should realized that these people are trying to get higher off of prescription drugs and over the counter dugs that are LEGAL and can be bought to mix. Mixing these causes a greater effect for them. Not just the over the counter mediccations and prescriptions are used. Also household cleaners that are LEGAL to purchase to use in the home. Why not just make EVERYONE who puchases these enjoy a harsh mandatory sentence including yourselves for being ignorant about this. If you want to give harsh mandatory sentences for LEGAL items that are purchased every day the the whole nation should be incarcerated.
You should have thought of giving these people some A REAL CHANCE at REHABILITAION by COMMITING THEM into A REHABILITATION FACILITY. SO they could get the help that is needed. WAKE UP AMERICA incarcerating for 10+ years for something so legal and made available to the public! Instead we are spending billions of dollars on mandatory minimums. COMMIT them to REHAB,add an ankle monitor, GIVE RESOURCES and HELP instead of ruining other's who either lose a family member or who was NEVER GIVEN THE CHANCE FOR A REAL DEAL that is MORE BENEFICIAL for them and our TAX DOLLARS. We need to have more jobs out there and BETTER PAY so these individuals DO NOT go back into the streets. If we had better pay where it benefited the nation. This would REDUCE PROVERTY,DRUG WARS,WELFARE,HOMELESSNESS. Why not BENEFIT our own NATION, we have a big problem and BUSH just IGNORED the widespread EPIDEMIC of DRUGS and PROVERTY!
We are going down and we will more than likely hit a great depression worse than the last.

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Posted by: | Oct 14, 2008 11:25:07 PM

The largest bias that I've seen in the meth story is how long it has taken the government to realize the extent of the problem. And that is probably attributed most to the fact that meth hits rural communities and has only recently begun to have a major impact on states far enough east for Washingon to notice.

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I'm afraid you're wrong about precursor bans limiting meth production, anywhere. As a prosecutor, I'm surprised you aren't aware that the "pipeline" hasn't been shut off at all.

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