Search Penny Hill Press

Monday, November 14, 2011

Illicit Drug Policy: A Compendium

This collection of five in-depth Congressional Research Service studies opens with a discussion of issues relating to the reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. It examines the disparities in federal cocaine sentencing, looks at the issue of fines and terms of imprisonment for drug offenses, addresses warrantless seizures in forfeiture cases, and discusses legal issues relating to the disposal of dispensed controlled substances.

Policy makers have sustained interest in various aspects of illicit drug control. The Obama Administration has indicated that a comprehensive National Drug Control Strategy should include a range of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement elements. One issue of concern to Congress involves the federal government’s role in quelling drug trafficking and related violence. The debate may involve how much aid to provide to state and local law enforcement to combat drug-related crimes, how to combat criminal organizations that are involved in the large-scale trafficking of illicit substances, and how to measure the success of federal drug control efforts.

Over the past 25 years, Congress subjected more criminal acts to mandatory minimum penalties. Nowhere is this more apparent than with federal drug laws. Parallel to the federalization of more crimes, Congress led the way in reforming the way in which the United States punishes law violators. With a de-emphasis on rehabilitation and an emphasis on just desert, in 1984, Congress passed legislation that abolished parole and created presumptive sentencing guidelines. Mandatory minimum penalties and presumptive sentencing guidelines were seen as mechanisms to eliminate judicial discretion and disparities in sentencing, while bringing transparency to the process. They appear, however, to have produced unintended consequences, including increased racial and ethnic disparities in federal prisons and increased incarceration of non-violent, drug offenders.

Reforming the federal sentencing system has been particularly contentious with regards to statutory mandatory minimums imposed for certain drug offenses, including the drug quantity ratio disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The 111th Congress acted to reduce the previously existing 100-1 disparity in crack/powder cocaine quantities that trigger mandatory minimum penalties for specified crimes. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-220) reduced the statutory ratio to 18:1, by increasing the threshold amount of crack cocaine to 28 grams (for the five-year sentence) and 280 grams (for the 10-year sentence) and eliminating the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine.

Date of Compendium: October 20, 2011
Number of Pages: 84
Order Number: IS20284
Price: $29.95. Subscribers to Congressional Research Report pay $14.97

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.