'Crackheads, Senators, Money and Power'

Nov. 9, 2009
News Photo 4817Mark Osler, Baylor Law Professor

Baylor law professor will speak at Harvard University on the social and legal history of crack cocaine

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Marijuana may be the most popular illegal drug of choice, and heroin may be the most damaging drug an individual can use, but it is crack cocaine that has changed the world as Americans know it.

That's the finding of Baylor law professor Mark Osler who has spent more than a decade studying, testifying on and arguing cases about sentencing crack cocaine offenders.

Osler has been invited to share his expertise, speaking on "Crackheads, Senators, Money and Power: A Social and Legal History of Crack Cocaine" at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Monday, Nov. 16, at 6 p.m.

Baylor University graduate James Nortey, now a student at Harvard Law School and president of the Harvard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, invited Osler to speak on the legal and social harms caused by society's handling of crack and how drug policies should be changed to create positive systemic change.

"Crack cocaine has done more to shape our laws, our cities, our fears and our politics than any other narcotic in our nation's history," Osler says. "And now is the right time to tell this story because the worst of the crack epidemic is over and we can see the full arc of its path of destruction.

"At the same time, crack is still on the streets and continues to unsettle institutions from the local police to the Supreme Court of the United States."

Osler's experience in Supreme Court cases involving crack

Osler has been involved personally in crack cocaine cases from the local jurisdiction level up to the Supreme Court. After graduating from Yale Law School, he served for five years as a federal prosecutor in Detroit during the height of the crack epidemic, prosecuting many crack dealers. After joining the Baylor Law School faculty in 2000, Osler began writing extensively about federal sentencing generally and crack cocaine specifically.

He has been personally involved in two Supreme Court rulings about crack cocaine. His work was quoted in 2005 by Justice John Paul Stevens in United States v. Booker, a crack case in which the Supreme Court struck down mandatory federal sentencing guidelines. Earlier this year, he was the successful lead counsel before the Court in Spears v. United States, in which the Court held that judges meting out sentences in crack cases could categorically reject the harsh sentencing guidelines the federal government had imposed.

Crack's trajectory began in the 1980s

He traces the start of the crack epidemic and those harsh sentencing guidelines to the 1980s, when a surplus of powder cocaine flooded the Caribbean, bringing prices down by as much as 80 percent. In a quintessential market-driven response, dealers began promoting crack as a way to broaden revenue.

Pushed by gangs - "posses" - crack had an immediate and shocking effect on cities throughout the U.S. With crack distribution came violence, which accelerated the flight of residents and capital investment from central cities. Crack also devastated minority communities which were disproportionately affected by the posses targeting their neighborhoods.

It took the death of a single promising basketball player to capture Congressional attention. In 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose the night he was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Tip O'Neill heard from their constituents in Massachusetts, who were, perhaps, more upset about the loss of a top draft pick than a young athlete's loss of life.

In response, Kennedy and O'Neill promoted a new formula to "get tough on crack." The formula dictated that possession of one gram of crack would be punished with the same prison time as 100 grams of powder cocaine. "Without hearings or expert analysis, this hastily created ratio drove many of the disastrous and ineffective policies about crack cocaine that followed," Osler says.

A history of failure

The result? The "War on Drugs" was largely focused on crack cocaine - and was one of the most massive failures in American law enforcement history. After spending billions of dollars and incarcerating millions of Americans, the price of cocaine on the street went down, not up, showing that supply had not been reduced relative to demand. The 1:100 sentencing ratio resulted in harsh mandatory sentences that had little effect on reducing crime.

"Politically, it's understandable that elected presidents and elected members of Congress would not want to be seen as 'friends' to the crack dealers, so there was no effort by the federal government to change course," Osler says.

However, the unelected branch of government - the judiciary - did begin to react. Federal judges in many jurisdictions saw the crack laws as unjust and subverted them, ultimately playing the key role in the downfall of mandatory federal sentencing guidelines.

The story of crack cocaine in the U.S. has implications in how all policy is formulated, Osler says. "Our national failure to deal effectively with the crack epidemic illustrates a troubling aspect of our political process: A single anecdote - in this case, the death of a basketball star - can provoke a strong response which then becomes a virtually unassailable foundation of national policy.

"The reason we should pay attention to how crack cocaine policy has been made is that it fully shows the cost and fallacy of failing to articulate principles before acting."

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Baylor Law Professor Mark Osler presents "Crackheads, Senators, Money and Power: A Social and Legal History of Crack Cocaine," 6 p.m., Monday, Nov. 16, at Harvard Law School's Pound Hall Classroom 101, located at Massachusetts Avenue at Jarvis Street in Cambridge, Mass. The event is sponsored by the Harvard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Admission is free and open to the public. For information, contact James Nortey, (512) 636-6139.

Media Contact: Jill Scoggins, Assistant Vice President for Media Communications,(254) 710-1964

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