Vice Squad
Friday, September 26, 2003
Victory #7

The Trib had a small item (registration required) in the metro section today about a 52-year old
man sentenced to 2.5 years in federal prison for possessing more than 5 grams of crack.
He could have received up to 14 years. How did he avoid 14 years, and even the mandatory
minimum sentence of 5 years? About the only way available, it seems: he provided
substantial assistance to the prosecution in another, major drug investigation. Presumably
it is the other case mentioned in the report, that of a dealer involved in "a string of drug-related
kidnappings and tortures and one murder."

That should do it. His fate should deter all others, and we can safely conclude that we have won
the war on crack.

The report suggests that the sentenced individual was simply a prodigious crack user, not a
dealer. (He admitted that he gave new luxury cars to dealers in exchange for drugs.) So even
without the jail term, he was ruining his life through drugs. But how does our system treat such
an individual, who (for all we know) may have made bad choices, but is not necessarily a bad
person? (No evidence of "harm to others" (to invoke the phrase of John Stuart Mill) in the story.)
We threaten such people with a huge jail term, but let them buy some of their lives back if they
testify against others. So people cooperate, even fabricate.

The fact that drugs are illegal means that the black market is populated by criminals, many of
whom have few qualms about using violence. (The illegality precludes the usual forms of police
protection and access to contract law, so only those who can self-protect will be able to survive
in the business in the long run.) So we force our otherwise harmless coke-heads to deal with
violent criminals as they pursue their life-destroying habit, and then, to avoid a long prison
sentence, they have to testify against these same criminals, who are unlikely to take kindly to it
and have friends who also are comfortable with inflicting violence. I don't envy the fellow in
today's story either now or when he gets out in 2.5 years. Is this really the best way for a society
to control the consumption of a dangerous product?

Normally I would just stop with the question, but today I'll provide an answer: no. Drugs like
cocaine need to be controlled, and probably much more strictly than alcohol, say, is today.
But the criminal law is the wrong tool for quotidian cocaine regulation, though some criminal
penalties (for transfers to minors, for instance) are needed at the boundaries of the system,
just as they are for alcohol.

[The on-line article differs from the print version, and this is common for the Trib, it seems. I won't
point it out in the future unless the difference is pertinent to the commentary.]

Almost Pyrrhus-like, I am tiring of these victories in the War on Drugs (so should be our country,
I submit), and hope to blog about gambling or prostitution or some other non-drug vice
in the near future...

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