Political Drug Scandals: Why is Crack So Hilarious While Cocaine is So Forgivable?

By now, you’ve probably heard of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.  If you know only one thing about him, other than that he’s both the Mayor of Canada’s largest city and apparently the reincarnation of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, it’s that he was videotaped smoking crack.  His explanation?  That he was probably so drunk that he had no idea what he was doing — which, based on other of Ford’s antics, seems pretty plausible.  He’s going to be a punch line for years and years, despite what I’ve heard is a decent likelihood that he’ll still be re-elected because Toronto recently expanded to include some conservative suburbs whose voters don’t really care what he does so long as he doesn’t raise taxes.  (And drunk, stoned, or sober, he has enough of his wits about him not to do that.)

Another name has re-entered the news, thanks to Ford’s sudden notoriety.  The older among you probably remember Former DC Mayor Marion Barry — and what you probably remember about him other than his African-American ancestry is that he was busted for smoking crack.  He’s still a punchline for that.  His explanation was that an attractive young woman induced him to partake despite his having had no particular interest in doing so.  (He famously put it more succinctly: “Bitch set me up.”)  And, indeed, it turns out that the last three words of that were essentially true: after being arrested for a drug crime, the young woman seeking leniency was dispatched by police to get Mayor Barry to smoke crack — which she did by saying that she would definitely have sex with him, but first she wanted to him to smoke crack with her.  (She could probably have gotten him to first drink out of the toilet bowl instead, if that was her condition, but that wasn’t illegal enough to satisfy the police.)

So: two crack-smoking pols; two punch lines.  And that brings us to today.

Rep. Trey Radel pleaded guilty this morning to misdemeanor cocaine possession and was sentenced by a D.C. judge to one year’s probation. “I’ve hit a bottom where I realize I need help,” the first-term Republican congressman told the judge, acknowledging that he bought 3.5 grams of coke from an undercover agent late last month.

Here’s some of what Radel had to say in his public statement:

“I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice,” he said. “As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them.”

Wait — that first line is pretty much the same thing that Rob Ford said!  The difference is that Ford said he was blackout drunk at the time he was handed the pipe, while Radel seemed alert enough to go into an undercover agent’s car and conduct what I presume was a cash transaction.  (Which is worse?)

Rep Trey Radel as coke fiend

Is this picture of Trey Radel photoshopped, you may ask? Of COURSE it is. I increased the size of his eyes (even though coke doesn’t do that) and gave him some powder smears under his nose. Those bubbly things emanating from around his head, though? THOSE are real!

How is the political establishment reacting?  Let’s check in with a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner:

Members of Congress should be held to the highest standards, and the alleged crime will be handled by the courts. Beyond that, this is between Rep. Radel, his family, and his constituents.

That’s … it?  That’s all they have to say?  (By the way — once he’s pleaded guilty you don’t have to refer to it as an alleged crime anymore.  And the court system has already taken care of it: one year probation.)

Now, I’m sure that Radel will be a subject of the late-night comics for a while — but does anyone think that he’s going to dominate the news the way Rob Ford has done, or that you’ll still remember him name and what he did almost a quarter-century later, like Marion Barry?

Unless he does something very, very unusual for an encore, the answer is: “almost certainly not.”  (Do you even recall that civil rights leader Julian Bond was arrested for cocaine use?  When’s the last time you heard a Julian Bond joke?)

How do we explain that?  Crack cocaine is … cocaine.  Powdered cocaine is … also cocaine.  But one is met with disgrace and derision and the other with perfunctory condemnation.  We even used to sentence people who used crack to sentences 100 times more harsh than people caught using an equivalent amount of powder cocaine.  (The law was revised in the summer of 2010 — now the penalties are only 18 times as harsh.)

Yes, crack ravished poorer neighborhoods in the early 90s — but cocaine has done its damage as well.  (My guess is that if you dug into the Wall Street financial crises of the late 2000s, you’d find a lot of cocaine fueling the crazy.)  So why is the disparity in sentencing also recapitulating itself as disparity in ridicule?

I think that it’s simply because crack is “ghetto.”  “Bad people,” the underclass, use crack.  Coke is much more sophisticated.  “Good people,” wealthy and powerful people, “make the mistake” of sometimes using coke.

I get into discussions here from time to time about racism — which, in our country, is substantially (although not entirely) tied to attitudes towards social class.  I think that these disparities — in sentencing, in ridicule, and in forgiveness — largely derive from racism.  Many readers here probably don’t — so go ahead and state your case.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)