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The War on Drugs: 
This Time, it's Personal
Shamed Dogan • On the injustice of mandatory minimums • 1999

Who was Len Bias? Right now, the only Yalies likely to correctly identify Bias are basketball fans with knowledge of NBA Draft history. (In case you don’t fit into this category, Len Bias was a basketball star at the University of Maryland who was drafted by the NBA’s Boston Celtics in 1986.) In the future, however, Bias may be best known as the person whose death by cocaine overdose led to the escalation of the War on Drugs, with severe consequences. 

In the summer of 1986, Congress rushed to passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an attempt to stem the drug epidemic symbolized by Bias’s death. Mandatory minimum sentences are based on the type of drug sold or possessed and the amount of the drug, completely eliminating factors such as whether the accused has previous criminal offenses or what the person’s role in a drug deal was. The result has been an escalation of the already intense War on Drugs, which has caused immeasurable damage to those who have been incarcerated and their families. Civil liberties have been stripped away in the name of protecting children from drug dealers; children have been taken away from their parents under the assumption that a mother who has used drugs is worse for a child than no mother at all; perhaps most disturbingly, an entire generation of young black males is warehoused in prisons for having the nerve to try to lift themselves out of poverty by selling drugs. 

Politicians support mandatory minimums primarily out of fear that failing to do so will get them labeled “soft on crime” and hinder their chances of re-election. The fact is, the only thing current policies are tough on is justice. Again and again, people are incarcerated in trials that seem to have been conducted in totalitarian courts, not America’s. Take the case of Clarence Aaron. Aaron was involved in setting up a meeting between two of his friends, who went on to allegedly make a deal for nine kilograms of crack cocaine. Aaron was implicated in a conspiracy to sell crack cocaine because he had arranged for a meeting between his cousin and a friend of his. Although he knew that both of them were involved in drugs, he did not have knowledge that this specific meeting would involve the exchange of drugs, nor could he have possibly known how much trouble his introduction would get him into. 

After police arrested several of the people who had been connected to the alleged drug ring, the people most responsible started pointing fingers at Aaron, claiming that he had been the mastermind. Based solely on their testimony, without even producing any drugs as evidence that a deal had taken place, Aaron was convicted of selling nine kilograms of crack and given two consecutive life sentences, while his friends received reduced sentences for ratting him out. 

This insane miscarriage of justice took place because of “substantial assistance” laws that enable criminals to be sentenced for less than the prescribed mandatory minimum sentence if they can provide testimony in another case. Testifying against high-level drug kingpins isn’t the wisest idea, since it makes you a target for retaliation. However, snitching on a small-level dealer or user works out fine for everyone—the police get to make more arrests, the prosecutor has an easy time proving the case because he has a witness (somehow, the credibility of a witness who is receiving a reduced sentence for his testimony is never challenged), and you, of course, get to go home sooner. The loser is the poor addict you just helped send to the slammer. 

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws eliminate the discretion that judges normally have during the sentencing portion of a trial, instead prescribing sentences based on the type and weight of the drugs involved. For example, a person caught in a crime involving five grams of crack cocaine—the weight of about two pennies—will receive at least five years in federal prison with no questions asked. 

At the University of Wisconsin, students have suffered at the hands of a district attorney hell bent on collecting convictions for marijuana possession. Though Madison voters passed referenda in the late 1970s decriminalizing marijuana possession and establishing a $100 fine for the offense, police have been ignoring the ordinance and charging pot possessors as criminals, which subjects them to a penalty of up to six months in jail a $1,000 fine. 

Nationally, drug arrests on college campuses have risen every year since 1992, when the government first mandated that colleges release their annual crime statistics. Still, Yale hardly makes a blip on the Drug War radar screen, with only three drug arrests on campus in 1997. 

Though it is unlikely that Yale police will ever become vigilant about enforcing drug laws, the Drug War has nonetheless spread to our own campus this year in a more insidious manner. Last year, Congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1998, which denies federal financial aid to any student convicted of a drug offense. This farcical act was signed into law without a second thought by a man who would never have been able to graduate from Georgetown had the law’s standards been in place in the ’60s. This raises the interesting question of why so many politicians who tried drugs as college students now support heavy incarceration for drug users. 

There is hope amongst those of us who wish to reform drug laws that the overwhelming hypocrisy of at least four of this year’s presidential candidates will lead to a saner drug policy. For example, how is it that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) can continue to be so callous in advocating incarceration as the solution to drug addiction—except, of course, for his wife’s own addiction? In 1994, Cindy McCain admitted to stealing Percocet and Vicodin from the American Voluntary Medical Team, an organization providing relief to Third World countries. However, rather than serve time in jail, McCain was allowed to enter a pretrial diversion program, and not only did she spend no time in jail, but she also escaped with a clean record. While treatment has been shown to be fourteen times more effective than law enforcement in preventing crime, it is only available to 15% of those who request treatment. 

Similar to McCain’s refusal to connect public policy to his own experiences, Bill Bradley and Al Gore admit to having smoked marijuana “in the ’70s,” yet refuse to advocate any changes in marijuana laws. This comes from a disgustingly elitist attitude that while the privileged can use drugs and still manage to be normal people, the poor and unconnected will behave like animals under the influence of drugs and must be locked away. Adding to the hypocrisy is the fact that Gore’s son, Albert III, was caught smoking pot at school a couple of years ago. He was suspended from school but not subjected to the judicial authorities, and the vice president did all he could to keep the story out of the media. 

Most notoriously hypocritical on drug laws is Gov. George W. Bush, who has all but admitted to using cocaine sometime between his time at Yale and his 28th birthday. This is unique for two reasons: first, because Bush has made it a point to impose harsher penalties for drug use in Texas and pledges to do so as president. Depending on how much he may have used, Bush might still be in prison today according to his own standards of drug penalties. It makes no sense for him to continue to insist that we send a no-tolerance message to our children on the one hand, promising to lock them up if they use drugs, while sending a “we can tolerate what you did because you were a kid” message to the president. 

Second, depending on whom you ask, if the allegations of cocaine use are true, it may not even be possible for Bush, constitutionally, to become president. Cocaine use is a felony, and given my tendency to agree with those who advocated the impeachment of President Clinton precisely because he was a felon, Bush may not even by eligible for the office based on the current laws. If Bush ever does admit to his drug use, he will probably first point out that he was never convicted of any crime. Under that Clintonian standard, Richard Nixon to this very day is not a crook, but most of us like to call things what they are. 

When that fails, I think Bush will have to face an important dilemma. He can choose to either turn himself in for his past crimes, living up to his own standards of behavior, or he can advocate putting an end to our insane War on Drugs. This would allow millions of prisoners to say the same thing Bush says: that they made mistakes, but should be forgiven, not locked away. Len Bias would be proud to see the cessation of the policy that has been initiated in his name. 

—Shamed Dogan is a senior in Trumbull College


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