What's the way forward?

First, Congress needs to eliminate the 18:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, since they are simply different forms of the same substance. Hillary Clinton recently pledged to eliminate the disparity if elected President.

Second, the federal government should leave most crack law enforcement to the states. Nearly all crack is produced in the same state where it is consumed, and the dealers who sell crack are at the lowest-level of the cocaine pipeline, and are the easiest members of criminal organizations to replace when arrested. The federal government should combat international and interstate crime and the high-level cases that only they can carry out, but crack offenses rarely fit either of these descriptions.

Third, we must stop the criminalization of crack cocaine users. Research tying crack use to traumatic life experience indicates that crack use is a public health problem, not a moral failing. Responding to crack use with proven treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups, and residential programs will reduce the harms of crack far more effectively than continuing to punish and incarcerate people who use crack to self-medicate. Seattle’s LEAD program takes this approach by diverting low-level offenders from incarceration, instead offering them counseling and housing and transportation assistance. The results are promising: a follow-up evaluation found that LEAD participants were 58% less likely to be re-arrested than members of the control group. By expanding programs like LEAD and reducing harsh federal sentences for crack offenses, we can improve public health and safety through policies founded on fact instead of myth.

Fourth, we need to provide better enforcement and therapeutic interventions to stop, treat, and prevent domestic violence and child abuse and neglect. These are steps that would reduce the violence associated with and the demand for crack cocaine. Effective prevention would shrink the crack market, reducing violence at all levels and eliminating the robberies, burglaries, and retail thefts that some crack users commit to pay for their drug habits. It would also reduce the number of traumatized mothers and children at risk of turning to crack.