Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Supreme Court Looks Into Free Basing Cocaine

About once a term, the US Supreme Court takes a case that has a particularly technical angle to it. They always horrify me as the Justices get to display their ignorance of science, and also their ignorance of their ignorance: (Chief Justice Roberts: "2 + 2 is somewhere between 3 and 5, right?").

This term they now get to decide if laws against "cocaine base" include every base of cocaine of just "crack". The difference can be important as the penalties are much higher for crack than regular cocaine. (50 g of crack will get you ten-years, but you need 5 kilos of regular cocaine to get that same term.)

Cocaine is normally supplied as the hydrochloride salt, kinda like in the picture below, but imagine that the Cl- is floating around somewhere:

Crack cocaine is made by adding water and baking soda, while the free base is made by using ether and some other strong base[*]. The end result is chemically the same, but apparently a number of the district circuit courts have reached different answers on how important it is. And so crack cocaine and free basing will have their day in Court. I'm not sure when it will be just yet, but I can assure that I will have something to say about the appalling lack of science that will be found in the courtroom.

[*] You can obviously see now knowledgeable I am in these matters, huh?. Like I'm sure any readers here can do any better.


Anonymous said...

I am sure I am missing something here, as I have not read the background information and have no intention of doing so, but the idea of different "bases" of cocaine is silly. There is only one "base" of cocaine, cocaine! What makes crack special is that it has some sodium bicarb left over from the freeing of the base, but it has not pharmacological properties.

Free Base Cocaine = Crack

John said...

From a scientific viewpoint, that is totally correct. But throw in lawyers and everything can go out the window. That's why it horrifies me to see any case witha science twinge get this far. Even when the Supremes make a call that I agree with, they do s for the wrong reasons and those reasons (the opinion) can then be cited in future cases by other lawyers in lower courts spreading the mess endlessly.