This load of cocaine won't go up in smoke or up anyone's nose. Photographer: Kimberly White/Bloomberg News.
This load of cocaine won't go up in smoke or up anyone's nose. Photographer: Kimberly White/Bloomberg News.

A crack-smoking big city mayor is no longer a curiosity, thanks to Toronto's Rob Ford. Now, the public needs to get used to the idea of a crack-using bank chairman who is also a Methodist minister.

The Reverend Paul Flowers was filmed buying crack and crystal meth, and, just like Mayor Ford, said that he was sorry for doing "stupid things" and that he was "seeking professional help." Just last June, Flowers stepped down as chairman of Co-operative Bank, a venerable British institution with 4.7 million clients and $80 billion in assets. Co-op had marketed itself as an "ethical bank" supporting local communities and refusing to back businesses producing weapons or using sweatshop labor. After a heedless expansion under Flowers, it needed a bailout.

Like Ford, Flowers is a wealthy white man. Neither of them fits the crack stereotype: This smokable form of cocaine, unlike the powder meant for snorting, is considered a ghetto drug.

There are statistical reasons for that perception. In 2008, Cassia Spohn of Arizona State University and Lisa Sample of the University of Nebraska published a study of sentences passed in drug trafficking cases by three U.S. district courts during three years. Of those whose offense involved crack cocaine, 81 percent were black. Last year, William Evans of Notre Dame University and his fellow researchers blamed crack as the reason the educational gap between American whites and blacks stopped narrowing in the mid-1980s: The newly popular drug increased dropout, murder and incarceration rates among blacks but didn't similarly affect whites.

The newsworthiness of Ford's and Flowers's propensity to get high lies in their choice of substance (or substances, since both would qualify as multidrug users). Nobody would have cared if they only drank alcohol. Ford's heavy drinking didn't make international headlines the way his crack smoking did. Flowers wouldn't have stirred the British tabloids if he had been photographed outside a bar lying in the gutter.

There is a stigma attached to street drugs, especially crack. Under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, it takes 18 times the amount of powdered cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger certain federal penalties for someone found in possession of the substance. Before, the ratio was set at 100-to-1: Legislators saw crack as much more dangerous than the powder form of the drug.

Research has shown that that crack doesn't cause more violence or crime than powdered cocaine. Although the fear-induced assumptions of the 1980s have been discredited and the sentencing disparity reduced, it hasn't been eliminated.

Crack and powdered cocaine are basically the same substance, producing no biological dependence but a strong psychological one. It is still addiction, but cocaine is only marginally more addictive than alcohol, according to an authoritative 2001 study. Some 15 percent to 16 percent of cocaine users and 12 percent to 13 percent of alcohol users develop dependence within 10 years of initial use. A cocaine addiction tends to develop faster than a dependence on alcohol, but that is hardly a reason for abusive drinking to be more socially acceptable than using cocaine in any form. It's worth noting that since the 1980s, alcoholics have become more likely to have a secondary substance problem: See, for example, these recent data from Texas's publicly funded addiction-treatment programs.

The public outrage provoked by cases like Ford's and Flowers's is a cocktail of ignorance, prejudice and double standards. People in positions of responsibility live under constant stress, and some of them will seek relaxation or stimulation in chemical substances such as alcohol or drugs of the street or prescription variety. The result -- impaired judgment and functionality -- is the same, whether as a result of use of legal alcohol, illegal crack or both.

We need to decide whether society should require our politicians, clergy and business leaders to be teetotalers, forswearing all mind- or mood-altering substances. If so, at what level of responsibility does that requirement start?

In any case, there is no point in stigmatizing the use of some potentially addictive substances compared to others posing much the same dangers.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a BloombergView contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)