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Democrats make crack cocaine sentencing slightly less racist

Netroots Nation was a blast!  I got to have a great hour with Pam, eating chicken salads and catching up since our last F2F in Denver in 2008.  I briefly got to see Autumn as well before she headed off to another activity in her busy weekend.

It reminded me that I need to post at PHB more often.  However, as deep as I am in my work for marijuana law reform, it’s rare that I find the time to post about much else.  Heck, I didn’t even know all the details of the Shirley Sherrod story until Pam filled me in.

But I promise to stop by more often, especially as my work intersects with sexuality, race, and politics.  For this story, I get two out of three… –“R”R

Cocaine isn’t our bailiwick here at Pam’s House Blend or even where I work at NORML, and personally I have a no-white-powders rule.  But one of the biggest glaring examples of the racism of the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs is the Crack-Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity.

It works like this: if you’re caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine, you get the same mandatory minimum as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.  Crack cocaine and powder cocaine, chemically speaking, are identical with respect to addictive potential and psychoactive effect.

The difference, of course, is that crack cocaine is used by urban poor black people and powder cocaine is used by suburban affluent white people.  Generally speaking.

So Congress, controlled by huge Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, is sending a bill to the Democratic president who campaigned on eliminating the crack/powder disparity.  This bill will increased the trigger of a mandatory minimum for crack from 5 grams to 28 grams (an ounce).

Meaning that instead of a 500:5 disparity for white vs. black people’s cocaine, the disparity will now only be 500:28.  For the math-impaired, that means that our cocaine sentencing laws will go from being 100 times more racist to blacks to being 18 times more racist to blacks.

I suppose I should be thrilled with any adjustment to mandatory minimums, but I have suffered one too many “compromises” by a huge Democratic majority and president I voted for who promised a whole lot of things I really believe in*, only to start negotiations in the middle, compromise to the right, and call it a victory for the left.  (Funny, I don’t remember George W. Bush, with a barely-GOP majority, ever being stymied in pushing through Congress anything he wanted, except privatizing Social Security.  And it was a Democratic Congress under Republican President Reagan who gave us this 500:5 mandatory minimum disparity in the first place!)

Chris Weigant at HuffPo nails how I and many others are feeling about this latest victory for bi-partisanship:

In true incrementalist fashion, Democrats have now made things slightly less unfair, but fell far short of actual fairness. It’s as if, right after the Civil War, Congress announced that black people would now count as four-fifths of a person, instead of the previous three-fifths — in other words, a step towards equality, but not exactly the giant leap of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Which makes it rather hard to praise such an effort, even though it does represent (some) progress.

This is landmark legislation, I realize. Moving away from the “lock them all up” mentality, for politicians, is remarkable simply because it does not happen often (read: “ever”). Backing down on Draconian drug laws is not exactly atop the priorities list of many politicians, because the ads attacking them for doing so just about write themselves. So I do applaud Congress for addressing the issue (both houses have now passed the bill).

While Congress did not have the courage of their convictions to do so this time around, they did take a baby step in the right direction. This is momentous, because it is the first such step in this direction in three or four decades. But I still can’t help but wish that Congress had tackled the problem not in such an incrementalist political fashion, but rather as an issue of rank inequality to be rectified by removingall of the legally-codified unfairness at once — to restore the concept of equal treatment under the law, rather than perpetuating (if slightly lessening) the inherent injustice which still exists.

That’s Obama – promise the Left, start negotiations in the Center, compromise to the Right, and call it a progressive victory.

* For example…

Holding accountable the companies that spied on us without warrants.

Ending extraordinary rendition of prisoners for torture.

Closing Guantanamo Bay

Ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Allowing Medicare to negotiate in bulk for lower drug prices.

“I won’t sign any health care reform bill without a public option.”

Ending DEA raids on legal medical marijuana states

Supporting Main Street over Wall Street.

I was just hoping for a change more meaningful than “He’s better than Bush”. Shee-it, I’M better than Bush!