This term, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on DePierre v. United States, a case determining whether the phrase “cocaine base” is limited to “crack” cocaine, or whether the phrase encompasses every form of cocaine that is classified chemically as a base. Mr. DePierre was convicted of distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine base under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (2006) which created the sentencing minimums for punishing drug-related offenses. The statute provides a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence for offenses involving “50 grams or more of a mixture or substance…that contains cocaine base.” The meaning of the phrase “cocaine base” has created a deep division between the circuit courts with four courts of appeals holding the phrase is limited to crack cocaine, while six courts of appeals have interpreted the phrase to mean all chemically basic forms of cocaine.
If cocaine base is read to include any chemically basic forms of cocaine, those individuals who are convicted of possessing 50 grams or more of coca leaves are automatically sentenced to ten years in prison. Coca leaves, like many other chemically basic forms of cocaine, cannot be consumed without substantial processing and treatment. It seems highly illogical for Congress to have intended to punish these individuals in the same way as those who possess highly addictive crack cocaine, especially considering the statute requires a 10-year minimum sentence for those individuals who commit offenses involving five kilograms of coca leaves. If Congress intended to include coca leaves within the meaning of the phrase “cocaine base,” why would they then make it a separate crime, punishable by the same amount of prison time, to possess one hundred times the amount of coca leaves? Those courts who have interpreted the phrase to include a broader scope seem to ignore a basic rule of statutory interpretation: statutes should not be interpreted to produce absurd results.