It was a sentencing regime forged by fear and tinged with racism.
But local drug expert Herb Delaney said the decision earlier this year to bring crack cocaine sentencing guidelines in line with long-standing guidelines governing sentencing for powder cocaine offenses makes sense and is about two decades overdue.
Delaney, director of Kankakee's Duane Dean Prevention and Treatment Center, said public hysteria whipped up in the middle 1980s over the arrival of crack cocaine on America's streets prevented calmer voices from stepping up to say "let's see how much truth there is to this.
"I remember when watching some of the documentaries on crack cocaine, the allegation that an individual became addicted after the first use of crack cocaine -- while it does happen, it sometimes doesn't. It depends on the psychological makeup of the person," said Delaney. "I think some very influential politicians pushed it pretty hard."
But civil liberties groups and some judges claimed, correctly, that the vast majority of those catching the stiffer crack cocaine trafficking sentences were black, rousing the worry that crack cocaine penalties were self-evidently racist.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission's recent decision to bring crack trafficking sentences in line with powder cocaine trafficking sentences removes that taint, but Delaney said the problem of addiction remains a community-wide concern -- one that knows no color barrier.
"Some personal observations of mine: In driving through areas in Kankakee, I see pushers. They have their turf, so to speak. They're minorities, mostly. But what I also see is that the greatest number of their clients are young, white, middle-class people.
"But when you talk to the community at large about addiction, there seems to be an attitude that drug use and addiction is only a problem in certain parts of the city," said Delaney.
To come close to solving a community's drug woes, said Delaney, it's necessary to "work across those lines, between the sellers and the users of drugs, and not just those who sell drugs."
Without an even-handed approach, Delaney warned, politicians may continue to confect laws that are "skewed" in ways that impact most heavily on minority communities.
Cocaine goes by the street names of coke, snow, flake, blow and many others.
Statistics & trends
In 2006, six million Americans ages 12 and older had abused cocaine in any form and 1.5 million had abused crack at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded 2007 Monitoring the Future Study showed that 2 percent of eighth-grade students, 3.4 percent of 10th-graders, and 5.2 percent of 12th-graders had abused cocaine in any form, and 1.3 percent of eighth-graders, 1.3 percent of 10th-graders and 1.9 percent of 12th-graders had abused crack at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.
Sources: National Survey on Drug Use and Health; www.samhsa.gov/. Monitoring the Future www.monitoringthefuture.org/, cocainedrugaddiction.com/