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November 22, 2006 - Pensacola News Journal (FL)

Column: Just Say No To The Expensive And Ineffectual War On Drugs

By Mark O'Brien

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Every six months, I sit down and read the latest slew of columns I've written.

In this self-review, I like some columns more now than when I wrote them, and some I don't like as much.

Occasionally, I see an old column and say, "What the heck was I thinking that day?"

In journalism you soon learn that you will be wrong from time to time.

In public.

Having written more than 1,100 columns since returning to the News Journal six years ago this month, I've committed some doozies.

This may be another, but I'm going to try anyway:

We need to end or rethink this so-called war on drugs.

It costs billions of dollars, and it isn't very effective. Let's find other ways to deal with drugs.

Take, for example, the so-called "Operation Sandshaker" case that rocked Pensacola Beach three years ago.

It was weird to see so many middle-age, out-of-shape white folks marched off to jail for what basically was some smart shopping for an unhealthy product.

The leaders decided to eliminate a middleman and traveled to South Florida themselves to get a lower price on cocaine.

In court, some got ridiculously long sentences, thanks to mandatory sentences enacted by politicians who want simple solutions to complex problems.

Some sentences eventually were reduced in exchange for information about other suspects. But this tactic didn't help low-level defendants who knew nothing and therefore had nothing to trade.

Fortunately, an appeals court recently threw out some bad reasoning by the prosecution, which used "aggregating" to get stiffer sentences.

The prosecution showed the defendant bought small amounts of cocaine here and there and eventually totaled the 28 grams needed to declare him a "trafficker," deserving of at least three years in prison.

It's akin to saying a man bought a six-pack of beer every week for a month, and since his total purchase was a case of beer, he was a dealer.

There's another disparity.

Powdered cocaine, preferred by white people like the Sandshaker set, carries less-serious penalties than crack cocaine, generally associated with black inner-city residents.

Five grams of crack gets you the same sentence as 500 grams of powdered cocaine, supposedly because crack is more potent. That's like deciding to go softer on the driver drunk on white wine than on someone blitzed on whiskey because Jim Beam is stronger than the Gallo Brothers.

Since the current system isn't working, I favor abolishing it, or at least sharply revamping it.

At the same time, I worry that I might be tempted to try the stuff if it's legal.

See me coming home from work: "Hi, honey, I got some milk and bread at the store. I also got some crack cocaine on sale, and I bought some really nice powdered cocaine for the Christmas party."

Then again, most of us resist the temptation to constantly abuse alcohol, chocolate or whatever other vices are legal.

Like a lot of topics, this one is more gray than black or white.

But this is clear: I'd rather tax the drugs -- and raise alcohol taxes, too -- and put the money into counseling and other, more valuable law enforcement efforts.

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