Since the 1980s, the revisionist narrative continues, experts have determined that powder and crack show more pharmacological “similarities than differences,” in the Times ’s words, and that crack is no more damaging to fetuses than alcohol. The belief that crack was an inner-city scourge was thus a racist illusion, and the sentencing structure to quell it a racist assault. Or, as . District Judge Clyde Cahill put it, in what one hopes is not a representative sample of the federal judicial temperament: “Legislators’ unconscious racial aversion towards blacks, sparked by unsubstantiated reports of the effects of crack, reactionary media prodding, and an agitated constituency, motivated the legislators . . to produce a dual system of punishment.”
The federal government sets a tone, and you will hear complaints from several states that the new administration has had a chilling effect on state legislatures. When the attorney general instructs federal prosecutors to charge the maximum, as Jeff Sessions has done, when his response to a national opioid epidemic is to yearn for a revival of a discredited 1980s anti-drug program, that sends a message to state legislators contemplating new approaches — and a warning to states that have legalized marijuana. So far, since the new sheriff arrived in Washington, reform measures have lost momentum in Kentucky and Oklahoma. An advocate involved in the reform battles in both states said of the rhetorical barbs from the White House and DOJ: “To say that those things haven’t had an impact on the environment is just incredibly naive.”
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