Crack vs. powder: Why cocaine arrests aren’t the same

"Crack users are much more likely to experience arrest than powder cocaine users, and being poor is the true overwhelming correlate, not being black or a minority," says Joseph J. Palamar. (Credit: DEA/Wikimedia Commons)

Black Americans are at a higher risk for arrest and incarceration due to drug possession. But experts say the reasons why are more complex than originally thought.

When researchers looked at the relationship between socioeconomic status and the use of crack and powder cocaine, they found that crack users are at higher risk than powder cocaine users for reporting a lifetime arrest or multiple recent arrests. Racial minorities are at low risk for powder cocaine use, but tend to be at high risk for crack use.

Income, not race

“Much of the public literature simply focuses on racial minorities being at high risk for arrest and incarceration due to drug possession” says Joseph J. Palamar, an affiliated researcher at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research at New York University.

“Our research shows it is much more complex than that. Crack users are much more likely to experience arrest than powder cocaine users, and being poor is the true overwhelming correlate, not being black or a minority.”

Individuals with higher education, higher income, or full-time employment are much less likely to use crack; however, these are sometimes risk factors for powder cocaine use, which is often more associated with affluence.

Black people are at increased risk for lifetime and recent crack use, but not when controlling for other socioeconomic variables. However, black people who use either powder cocaine or crack tend to use at higher frequencies, possibly placing them at even higher risk for arrest.

“We found that 12 percent of adults in the US have used powder cocaine, while only 4 percent have used crack cocaine,” Palamar says. “But it is the 4 percent who have used crack who are at greatest risk for arrest, which can further marginalize these individuals, making them unable to get jobs or school loans.”

Sentencing disparities

Contrary to public perception, powder cocaine and crack are actually the same price per unit, but powder cocaine is more “expensive” as it tends to be sold in grams.

Not only does powder cocaine cost more, it has been portrayed as an elite drug in popular culture, associated with luxury or glamour.


Published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the study confirms that crack tends to be used by a more marginalized segment of society—people who are at higher risk for arrest and subject to the 18:1 sentencing disparity.

Since black people in the US are so much more likely to live in poverty, disproportionate numbers have been incarcerated for crack offenses, while more educated and affluent individuals are less likely to be subject to legal consequences for powder cocaine use.

“We wrote this paper to inform the public and Congress about the disparities in the sentencing laws between crack and powder cocaine, which continue to have profound legal and social consequences for users,” says Palamar, who is also an assistant professor of population health.

“The sentencing laws appear to unfairly target the poor, with blacks ultimately experiencing high incarceration rates as a result.”

Source: NYU