WASHINGTON — They were indelible images of the cocaine world of the 1970s and ’80s: Rich yuppies and white suburbanites partying down 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, that 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.
In fact, data show, more Hispanics than whites or blacks have been sentenced on federal powder charges as far back as 1992. Law enforcement officials say that’s because federal agents almost exclusively pursue cocaine traffickers from South America and Mexico instead of end-of-the-line U.S. consumers.
Until the last decade, when the price of cocaine dropped sharply, consumers were largely affluent and educated. That fed into the misperception — often reported by The Associated Press and other news organizations — that most powder cocaine offenders were white, experts 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 co-authored a 1996 study medically challenging federal sentencing guidelines that penalized black cocaine offenders more harshly than white ones.
The study cited 1993 data indicating that 69 percent of powder and crack cocaine users were white, compared with 15 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic. However, it suggested 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. “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.”
The issue of race in cocaine use surfaced again recently with last winter’s U.S. Sentencing Commission vote to ease penalties for crack cocaine offenders — more than 80 percent of whom have been black, according to data between 1992 and 2006. Fewer 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 small-time or 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 (TRAC) 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 TRAC 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 the East Coast to New York, where it was distributed. A kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) then was usually worth at least $50,000, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Michael Sanders said.
“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 feds started cracking down on Miami, much of the traffic moved to Southwestern states, where Colombians paid Mexicans to smuggle the cocaine across the border, Sanders 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, U.S. 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.
The data do not detail how many Hispanics alone were charged because the statistics only look at differences in race, not by ethnicity, said FBI researcher Nancy Carnes.
In recent years, the big-time distributors have started sending cocaine traffic to Europe.
“It’s a market that’s been largely untapped — up until now,” Sanders said.