Data dispel image of cocaine user
Hispanic offender rate is on the rise
WASHINGTON - They were indelible images of the cocaine world of the 1970s and '80s: Rich yuppies and white suburbanites partying with a couple of lines of "blow." Stockbroker Charlie Sheen snorting up in the limo in "Wall Street." Woody Allen's sneeze in "Annie Hall."
More than 30 years later, the image remains, but the reality of coke in the United States has shifted significantly. Long portrayed as a white crime, Hispanics now make up the overwhelming majority, 60 percent, of federal offenders facing powder cocaine charges.
No recent studies are available on who uses powder cocaine most, but government data show that more Hispanics than whites or blacks have been sentenced on federal powder cocaine charges as far back as 1992.
Law enforcement officials say that is because federal agents almost exclusively pursue cocaine traffickers from South America and Mexico instead of end-of-the-line US consumers.
Until the past decade, when the price of cocaine dropped sharply, consumers were largely affluent and educated. That fed into the misperception that most powder cocaine offenders were white, specialists say.
"There was a lot of publicity about the white population using it; it was more of a higher economic status thing," said Dorothy K. Hatsukami, a behavioral scientist at the University of Minnesota's Masonic Cancer Center. She coauthored a 1996 study medically challenging federal sentencing guidelines that penalized black cocaine offenders more strongly than white ones.
The study cited 1993 data indicating that 69 percent of powder and crack cocaine users were white, 15 percent were black, and 13 percent Hispanic. It suggested, however, that far more blacks and Hispanics used the cheaper crack cocaine than whites.
"Articles in the papers were all related to the jet-setters into powder cocaine, so that's probably why we were focusing on the white population," Hatsukami said in an interview this week.
"There was a lot of media focus on whites and powder in the 1980s - then, it was almost legitimate to be using powder.
"That's what people did at parties, and people didn't think it was all that harmful," Hatsukami said.
The issue of race in cocaine use surfaced again recently with last winter's US Sentencing Commission vote to ease penalties for crack cocaine offenders - more than 80 percent of whom have been black, according to data from 1992 to 2006.
Less than 10 percent of crack offenders are white or Hispanic, the Sentencing Commission data show.
By contrast, the number of Hispanic offenders has risen steadily over the years, from 40 percent in 1992 to 58 percent in 2006, the data show. At the same time, the number of white offenders has steadily dropped: from 32 percent in 1992 to 14 percent two years ago.
Federal drug agents and prosecutors are quick to defend their focus on leaders of major drug rings and international traffickers - mostly blacks and Hispanics - instead of individual cocaine users, who are generally charged with state and local crimes.
Last year, for example, federal prosecutors won convictions against 445 people suspected of simply possessing drugs, according to Justice Department data provided in a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The federal government convicted more than 12,209 - nearly 30 times as many - drug traffickers, manufacturers, and distributors during that time, the clearinghouse study shows.
In the late 1970s and early to-mid 1980s, cocaine traffic mostly moved up the Interstate 95 corridor. Colombian traffickers airlifted or shipped bricks of the drug to Miami, then moved it up to New York, where it was distributed.
A kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) then was usually worth at least $50,000, said Drug Enforcement Administration agent Michael Sanders.
"That's a chunk of money; it was a big affluency thing," Sanders said. "It was pretty much white Americans. That was the market that was purchasing it."
Once the federal authorities started cracking down on Miami, much of the traffic moved to the Southwest states, where Colombians paid Mexicans to smuggle the cocaine across the border, he said. The price of a kilogram has since dropped substantially - to as little as $15,000 in Houston and New Orleans recently, he said.
By 2000, half of all cocaine traffickers facing federal charges were Hispanic, US Sentencing Commission data show. Additionally, Hispanics made up 61 percent of traffickers smuggling in more than 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds).
"I'm not going to tell you it's not worthwhile to put the user in jail," Sanders said. "But we are mandated to dismantle and disrupt major cartels. That's our ultimate goal."
For the most part, Sanders said, state and local police and prosecutors are responsible for cracking down on cocaine consumers.
The FBI reports that more than 875,000 whites and Hispanics were charged with local and state drug abuse crimes in 2006. By comparison, 483,800 blacks were similarly charged.