Socioeconomically disadvantaged adults are more likely to use crack over powder cocaine, and are thus more likely to be subject to arrest

Stock image of cocaine against a black background.

In light of the current sentencing disparity(18:1) between crack and powder cocaine possession in the United States,** researchers from New York University’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (NYU CDUHR) examined socioeconomic correlates of use of each, and relations between use and arrest, to determine who may be at highest risk for arrest and imprisonment.

CDUHR affiliated researcher, Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, and his team studied data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an ongoing cross-sectional survey of non-institutionalized individuals in the 50 states and District of Columbia. They aggregated data from most recent four cohorts, 2009-2012, and examined data for adults, age >18 (N=154,328).

In their analysis, now in the on-line edition of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, crack users were at higher risk than powder cocaine users for reporting a lifetime arrest or multiple recent arrests. Racial minorities were at low risk for powder cocaine use, but they tended to be at high risk for crack use.

“Much of the public literature simply focuses on racial minorities being at high risk for arrest and incarceration due to drug possession” said Dr. Palamar. Our research shows it is much more complex than that. Crack users are much more likely to experience arrest than powder cocaine users, and being poor is the true overwhelming correlate, not being black or a minority.”

Dr. Palamar and his team noted that individuals with higher education, higher income or full-time employment were much less likely to use crack; however, these were sometimes risk factors for powder cocaine use, which is often more associated with affluence. The researchers found that blacks were in fact at increased risk for lifetime and recent crack use, but not when controlling for other socioeconomic variables. However, blacks who did use either powder cocaine or crack tended to use at higher frequencies, possibly placing them at even higher risk for arrest.

“We found that 12% of adults in the US have used powder cocaine, while only 4% have used crack cocaine,” said Dr. Palamar. “But it is the 4% who have used crack who are at greatest risk for arrest, which can further marginalize these individuals, making them unable to get jobs or school loans.”

Contrary to public perception, powder cocaine and crack are actually the same price per unit, but powder cocaine is more “expensive” as it tends to be sold in grams. Not only does powder cocaine cost more, but it has been portrayed as an elite drug in popular culture, associated with luxury or glamour.

The research study confirms that crack tends to be used by a more marginalized segment of society, and it is this socioeconomically disadvantaged segment of society who is at higher risk for arrest and subject to the 18:1 sentencing disparity. Since black individuals in the US are so much more likely to live in poverty, disproportionate numbers have been incarcerated for crack offenses, while more educated and affluent individuals are less likely to be subject to legal consequences for powder cocaine use.

“We wrote this paper to inform the public and Congress about the disparities in the sentencing laws between crack and powder cocaine which continue to have profound legal and social consequences for users,” said, Dr. Palamar who is also an assistant professor of population health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. “The sentencing laws appear to unfairly target the poor, with blacks ultimately experiencing high incarceration rates as a result.”

**Researcher’s Note:
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was the first federal criminal law to differentiate crack from other forms of cocaine, establishing a 100:1 weight ratio as the threshold for eliciting the required five-year “mandatory minimum” penalty upon conviction of possession. Specifically, the penalty for possessing 500g of powder cocaine was comparable to possessing only 5g of crack).

The Fair Sentencing Act (2010) reduced sentencing disparities to 18:1, but sentencing disparities remain and the law is not retroactive, thus, those arrested prior to enactment remain in prison. The Smarter Sentencing Act (2014) was recently proposed to create less costly minimum terms for nonviolent drug offenders and would allow for the 8,800 federal prisoners (87% of whom are black) imprisoned for crack offenses to be resentenced in accordance with the Fair Sentencing Act.

Declaration of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Researcher Affiliations: Joseph J. Palamar, Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, NYU College of Nursing, Department of Population Health, New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center, Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies, NYU, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development; Shelby Davies, Departments of Pediatrics and Environmental Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center; Danielle C. Ompad, Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, NYU College of Nursing, Center for Health, Identity, Behavior & Prevention Studies, NYU, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and Global Institute of Public Health, New York University; Charles M. Cleland, Center for Drug Use and HIV Research, NYU College of Nursing, NYU College of Nursing; and Michael Weitzman, Departments of Pediatrics and Environmental Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center


The mission of the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) is to end the HIV and HCV epidemics in drug using populations and their communities by conducting transdisciplinary research and disseminating its findings to inform programmatic, policy, and grass roots initiatives at the local, state, national and global levels. CDUHR is a Core Center of Excellence funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant #P30 DA011041).  It is the first center for the socio-behavioral study of substance use and HIV in the United States and is located at the New York University College of Nursing. For more information, visit

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