The EQUAL Act and the Federal Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


Sarah Anderson
Associate Director, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties
Jillian Snider
Policy Director, Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties

Key Points

Prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses remain harsher than those for powder cocaine, despite their identical chemical composition.

The EQUAL Act would eliminate this disparity by increasing the threshold required to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine.

Eliminating the disparity would bring public policy into line with decades of research regarding public safety, racial impact and scientific realities.

Pivoting away from the war on drugs is critical to rightsizing the justice system and holding it accountable to the people it is meant to serve.


In 1986, the death of college basketball star Len Bias sparked a panic in the country about drugs. The hysteria focused largely on crack cocaine, despite the fact that Bias’ death actually resulted from an overdose on powder.

Congress quickly passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADAA), which included heightened mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, with crack cocaine treated more harshly than powder cocaine under the law. Only 5 grams of crack cocaine would trigger the same new mandatory minimum sentences as 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The new 100-to-1 sentencing law disparity between crack and powder cocaine has had a myriad of consequences, which have resulted in heavy research and resulting policy changes in the decades since the ADAA’s enactment.

According to a February 1995 United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) report to Congress, powder and crack cocaine are indistinguishable forms of the same drug. The USSC posited that Congress may need to reconsider the disparity it created and even, in May 1995, proposed equalizing the penalties between crack and powder.

It took until 2010 for Congress to take action on the results of the commission tasked with studying federal sentencing laws surrounding cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) did not fully eliminate the trafficking disparity, but prospectively reduced it to 18-to-1 while eliminating the simple possession mandatory minimum sentence unique to crack cocaine.

Although the reduction was not retroactive in statute, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dorsey v. United States (2012) allowed it to be applied in cases where the crime was committed before, but sentencing took place after, the FSA was law, and the First Step Act of 2018 made it fully retroactive for all serving time under the law.

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