Crack cocaine begins as cocaine hydrochloride, more commonly known as powder cocaine. To turn powder into crack, cocaine hydrochloride is heated in a mixture of baking soda and water. This produces a precipitate (an oily substance that floats to the top). When the precipitate is removed from the water and cooled, it hardens into a “rock” of crack cocaine. Unlike powder cocaine, crack cocaine is easily smoked (typically using drug paraphernalia known as a “crack pipe.”)

Federal law draws a distinction between cocaine in its “salt” form (cocaine hydrochloride) and “cocaine base.” While Congress’ use of the term “cocaine base” caused confusion for some time, the Supreme Court eventually decided that Congress meant to include crack cocaine, freebase cocaine, and cocaine paste within the broad term “cocaine base.” Freebase cocaine is less common than crack because it is more difficult to manufacture.

Freebase cocaine is made by heating cocaine hydrochloride with ammonia and extracting the resulting precipitate. The result is similar in appearance to crack — a hardened substance that looks like a rock. The penalties for crack cocaine and freebase cocaine are the same. Cocaine paste (also known as coca paste and paco) is more commonly traded in South American than in the United States.

The chemical composition of powder cocaine and crack cocaine is virtually identical; the only significant difference is the delivery system used to ingest the drug. Although the two forms of the drug have the same chemical properties, Congress has chosen to penalize crack more harshly than powder cocaine. Unfortunately, the difference in sentencing between the two forms of cocaine has more to do with politics and hysteria than with science or rational thought.

Penalties

A federal sentence for distributing (or possessing with intent to distribute) a mixture or substance containing crack cocaine, or for a conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, depends upon the amount of the drug, whether the defendant has a prior drug conviction under state or federal law, and whether a serious injury or death resulted from use of the distributed drug. Offenses involving larger quantities require the court to impose a mandatory minimum sentence.

  • Less than 28 grams (no injury):
  • First offense:  Maximum sentence of 20 years.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Maximum sentence of 30 years.
  • Less than 28 grams (serious injury or death):
  • First offense:  Minimum sentence of 20 years, maximum of life.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of life.
  • At least 28 grams but less than 280 grams (no injury):
  • First offense:  Minimum sentence of 5 years, maximum of 40 years.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of 10 years, maximum of life.
  • At least 28 grams but less than 280 grams (serious injury or death):
  • First offense:  Minimum sentence of 20 years, maximum of life.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of life.
  • 280 grams or more (no injury):
  • First offense:  Minimum sentence of 10 years, maximum of life.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of 20 years, maximum of life.
  • 280 grams or more (serious injury or death):
  • First offense:  Minimum sentence of 20 years, maximum of life.
  • Second or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of life.

The maximum penalties described above may increase substantially and different mandatory minimum penalties may apply if:

  • the drug was distributed to a person under the age of 21;
  • the drug was distributed to a pregnant woman;
  • minors were employed to assist in the commission of the offense; or
  • distribution occurred near a protected area.

In addition to a potential prison sentence, fines and costs can be imposed, as well as a term of supervised release.

Penalties For Simple Possession

Simple possession is the term used to describe possession of a drug for personal use, not with the intent to distribute the drug to others. The range of sentences available for simple possession of crack cocaine (or cocaine base) depends upon whether the defendant has a prior conviction for a drug offense under state or federal law.

  • First offense:  Maximum sentence of one year.
  • Second offense:  Minimum sentence of 15 days, maximum of two years.
  • Third or subsequent offense:  Minimum sentence of 90 days, maximum of three years.