Cocaine related offenses are the most common federal crime accounting for 37% of all federal drug crimes. Cocaine is a central nervous stimulant drug made from the coco leaf primarily made in Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. The cocaine extraction process is complex and involves heating then cooling the leaves. Alcohol is then added and distilled off to create the most pure alkaloid form. U.S. pharmaceutical companies use cocaine for legal medicinal use as a topical anesthetic. Most cocaine is produced for illegal use. Cocaine is usually exported from South America in power form. The chemical name for powder is cocaine hydrochloride. It has a high boiling point and therefore cannot be smoked. Traditionally it is snorted.

Crack vs. Powder

There are two different types of cocaine, crack and powder. In the 80’s a less dangerous form of cocaine freebase was created called crack cocaine. The process also removed the salt from the powder except this was done by mixing it with baking soda then heating it. After it cools it hardens into rocks. Crack cocaine is much cheaper which aided its popularity. A perceived “crack epidemic” resulted in the mid 1980’s which prompted congressional hearings during the summer of 1986. The result of the hearings created the following findings: 1. Crack cocaine is much more addictive than powered, 2. Crack produced psychological effects that were worse than powder, 3. Crack attracted users that could not afford powder particularly young people, and 4. Crack cocaine led to more crime.

In 2014 the United States Sentencing Commission recommended to further reduce jail sentences for all non-violent controlled substance offenders. Attorney General Eric Holder supports the recommendation and the new law should take effect in November of 2014. The District United States Attorneys have already enacted policies to allow federal defendants convicted of non-violent controlled substance offenses to enjoy the lesser penalties.


In August 2010 President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to “restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing“ laws. The Act reduced the federal crack vs. powder disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. The new law was also made to apply retroactively where persons under the old law could get re-sentenced and their jail sentences significantly reduced. Mandatory minimum prison sentences still exist. A federal conviction for possession with the intent to distribute a minimum of 28 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder carries a minimum of five years in prison. The sentence increases if the offense involves a firearm, violence, or injury to another and if the offender has a prior criminal record. Lesser jail sentences are given to offenders who deal in smaller amounts of crack and powder cocaine. The median sentence for all federal cocaine offenses in 2013 was 78 months in prison.


The best defenses to distribution of cocaine include challenging federal search warrants, establishing mere presence, lack of knowledge of the conspiracy, the substance, or intent to deliver.


The chemistry of cocaine is important to note. Cocaine is cocaine, whether it begins as a salt (cocaine hydrochloride or powder) or a base (crack cocaine). Human bodies remove the salt molecule to convert the cocaine to a base which allows it to get to the receptor. That is why smoking it is faster because the base is already there. Therefore many still see the 18 to 1 disparity as unfair and prejudicial. Significantly, there are no other drugs that have this type of disparity based upon the manner in which it is ingested. Heroin and marijuana may be introduced into the body in various ways which produce very different speeds of effect but there is no difference in sentencing.


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