Vice Squad
Friday, September 19, 2003
Attempted Possession of Cocaine?

The front page of the Trib today brings us a story entitled “FBI Sting Nabs Cops in Cocaine, Cash Thefts.”
Nine current or former officers were arrested for their activities related to five sting operations. Eight of
the nine officers worked for Chicago area law enforcement agencies but none of them, as far as I can tell,
was with the Chicago Police Department.

(Incidentally, as the sting operations involved fake cocaine buys, seven of the officers were charged with
“attempted possession of cocaine,” which carries a sentence of 5 to 40 years in prison and fines of up to
$2 million, apparently – imagine what actual possession of cocaine could get you! And I suppose that this
also means that somewhere there are workers whose job it is to manufacture fake cocaine. Maybe it is
even a thriving business – “the Department of Labor reports that jobs in automobiles and steel
production fell by 2.4% in the third quarter, but overall employment remained high, thanks to an 11%
increase in jobs in the fake cocaine sector.” And just as cocaine comes in various qualities, I suppose fake
cocaine does, as well. Imagine low quality fake cocaine, and the sales pitch: “Well, it’s true, it doesn’t
really resemble cocaine very much – looks rather more like saltwater taffy – but if you squint, you might
mistake it for real cocaine, or at least higher quality fake cocaine, and it is much cheaper than the higher
quality fake coke.”)

I don’t know the “optimal” regulatory scheme for cocaine, nor do I think that anyone does, but I am pretty
sure that our rather strict prohibition is a significant blunder. (One element of a desirable drug control
regime that I think is important is that penalties for adult possession of “personal use quantities” be
minuscule or non-existent. This does not rule out most strict regulations, however, nor does it, in itself,
rule out bans on sale, purchase, manufacture, and so on. As the blog develops, I will say more about this.)
One of the main problems with our current rules, and one that I think is underappreciated, is their
tendency to undermine law enforcement. What a trap we set for our police, when they can make
thousands of dollars simply by looking the other way, without harming anyone directly and without
generating complaints to the sergeant! We set up similar traps for inner-city youth. Harsh penalties on
drug sales by adults give kids a comparative advantage in working in the drug trade, reinforced by the
lack of legal employment options. (Indeed, child labor laws preclude most forms of legitimate employment
for them.) When kids (or the cops) succumb to the huge temptation that we dangle before them, we then
condemn them as drug sellers or for selling out the integrity of the force. I am not arguing that cops should
be corrupt or kids should sell drugs, but our laws create a huge “attractive nuisance,” to redeploy a legal
phrase, and we shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of folks find it, er, attractive.

Stateville update: The Joliet area prison (the Stateville Correctional Center) has had another former guard
plead guilty to smuggling drugs to prisoners, this time, marijuana, as well as a charge of assisting in the
distribution of crack. She also pleaded guilty to having sex with two prisoners. No word if any rock and roll
charges were brought against her.

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