Support Denmark, Defend Freedom

Monday, June 26, 2006

Anti-drug Bias

A tip o' the hat the Radley Balko for pointing out an excellent column in Sunday's Washington Post that shows how the death of basketball player Len Bias in 1986 directly led to Congress enacting some of the harshest and most absurd drug laws in America's history, laws that still exist today.

The column was written by Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Interestingly, Balko points out that as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, Sterling actually helped write many of these laws, only to later become a vocal critic of them.

University of Maryland star Bias was found dead of a cocaine overdose the day after he was drafted number two overall by the Boston Celtics. According to Sterling and Stewart, Beantown congressman and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil almost immediately demanded strong anti-drug legislation:
One result was the innocuous-sounding Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act, which became the first element of the enormous Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, hurried to the floor a little over two months after Bias's death. But the effect of the penalties and enforcement legislation was to put back into federal law the kind of clumsy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that had been done away with 16 years before. And there they remain, 20 years and several hundred thousand defendants later.

Congress wanted to send several messages by again enacting mandatory minimums: to the Justice Department to be more focused on high-level traffickers; to major traffickers that the new penalties would destroy them; to the voters that members of Congress could fight crime as vigorously as the police and prosecutors.

But as usual, Congress screwed the pooch. (Little known fact: Congress's motto is "If you thought the problem was bad, wait til you see our solution!" True story.)

Instead of targeting large-scale traffickers, it established low-level drug quantities to trigger lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms: five grams (the weight of five packets of artificial sweetener), 50 grams (the weight of a candy bar), 500 grams (the weight of two cups of sugar) or 5,000 grams (the weight of a lunchbox of cocaine). Large-scale traffickers organize shipments of drugs totaling tons -- many millions of grams -- filling tractor-trailers, airplanes and fishing boats.

On top of this, the Justice Department obviously decided that prosecuting small-time dealers is more important than going after the big-time traffickers:

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that only 15 percent of federal cocaine traffickers can be classified as high-level. Seventy percent are low-level. One-third of all federal cocaine cases involve an average of 52 grams, a candy bar-sized quantity of cocaine, resulting in an average sentence of almost nine years in prison without parole.

Would it be cynical to think that DOJ goes after small fries because it's an easy way to pad its statistics? Wow, you've put how many drug dealers behind bars? Ooh, let's increase your budget! Yeah, I guess that would be cynical. I can live with that.

So here we are, twenty years later, and as Sterling as Stewart note, we've seen a 527% increase in the federal prison population, from 36,000 in 1986 to over 190,000 today, more than half of whom are "drug offenders, most of whom are serving sentences created in the weeks after Len Bias died."

But at least we've won the "War on Drugs," right? Yeah.

Sadly, the nation's drug abuse situation is not much better after 20 years. Teenagers are using very dangerous drugs at twice the rate they did in the 1980s. The price of cocaine is much lower and the purity much higher, which tells us that the traffickers have become more efficient.

See, here's the thing: I'm opposed to the WoD in the first place, on moral grounds, but even if I supported it wholeheartedly, I'd like to think that I'd be smart enough to concede defeat by now. I mean, you'd think that after this many years of abject failure, even government workers would get the message. (Maybe they're too busy drinking?) Our government is in essence fighting a losing war against many of its own citizens, citizens who quite franky have the right to ingest whatever substances they want.

Sterling and Stewart end on a (very) cautiously optimistic note:

There is a trickle of hope that mandatory sentences as a legacy of Bias's death might come to an end. A handful of conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee have begun to question the wisdom of current mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and some vote against them. The first round of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, enacted in 1951, was repealed almost 20 years later, with bipartisan support. Among those who backed repeal was George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Texas. With his son in the White House, this would be a good time for history to repeat itself, and for this sad legacy of Len Bias's death to finally end.

I'm not inhaling holding my breath.

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home