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Assessing Racialized Mental Representations of Crack and Powder Cocaine Users

During the crack epidemic, targeted laws and media representation sent messaging that those addicted to crack were Black criminals (Alexander, 2020). In contrast, the growing prevalence of powder cocaine generated productive responses (e.g., emphasizing treatment; Hansen, & Netherland, 2016), which may be because powder cocaine being associated with Whiteness. The current work examines whether racialized mental representations (MRs) of individuals experiencing addiction to crack or powder cocaine predicts bias in recommended punishments.

In Phase 1, 120 participants completed reverse correlation tasks (see Brown-Iannuzzi, 2017 for detailed methodology) envisioning individuals experiencing addiction to crack and powder cocaine.

In Phase 2, in three subphases with slightly varying procedures, separate samples of participants viewed composite MRs of each target group and rated them on a variety of social characteristics, notably Afrocentricity and Eurocentricity. Evaluators then rendered punishment judgments (fines, prison time, community service).

Paired samples t-tests were conducted to compare evaluations of MRs by phase 2 evaluators. The crack, relative to powder, cocaine MR was judged as significantly more Afrocentric and less Eurocentric in all three subphases.

The crack cocaine MR was recommended significantly harsher punishment judgements in phase 2a. The powder MR was recommended significantly harsher punishment judgements in phase 2b. There were no significant punishment judgement differences in phase 2c.

This work suggests that people hold distinct and racialized mental representations of people who use different drugs, and which may influence punishment expectations/judgments. Despite crack and powder cocaine having no pharmacological differences, federal crime penalties punish crack much more harshly than powder cocaine (Lynch, 2021). The findings of this study provide some insight in the creation, preservation, and consequences of disparities in drug laws and their enforcement.