There are no pharmacological differences between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. This means that, chemically, they are nearly identical and hence, produce similar results.
However, there is a difference in the way that the drugs are taken. Powder cocaine is snorted, injected or swallowed, while crack cocaine is smoked. Thus crack cocaine tends to be cheaper, faster acting, and the high lasts for a shorter period of time, compared to inhaling powder cocaine. How quickly the effects are felt differs based on how it is taken, as do the ways in which the associated harms can be reduced.
Despite the fact that the chemical structure of powder cocaine and crack cocaine is nearly identical, the punishment for crack possession or sales is far greater than that of cocaine. Until 2010, this sentencing disparity was 100 to 1, which means that while just 5 grams of crack would carry a 5-year mandatory minimum, it would take 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the same 5-year sentence. While the law was changed in 2010, there continues to be a disparity of 18 to 1.
This sentencing disparity has had a disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color. Statistics show that Black people are more likely to be convicted of crack cocaine offenses (even though the majority of crack cocaine users are white) and white people are more likely to be convicted of powder cocaine offenses. This means that Black people continue to receive far harsher drug sentences than white people even though powder and crack cocaine are nearly identical substances.