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With Republicans telling the press to get off George W.’s back, a
meeting popped into my mind that I attended a year ago on
African-American unemployment. The issues? How can black capitalism take
root in a neighborhood that’s wrecked by crime, drugs and easy money?
How can you get a kid to flip hamburgers at McDonald’s when he can make
$200 an hour peddling crack?

Downstairs in the hotel lobby after the meeting, a prominent and
celebrated black Pittsburgher asked if I had a few minutes. A couple
drinks later, he said what he didn’t choose to say upstairs. “You’d be
surprised,” he said, “if you knew who in this town is buying that stuff
in the black community.” His point? The hypocrisy. The jails overflowing
with black kids who supply “nose
candy” to the unjailed in the suburbs.

In the August/September issue of Reason magazine, Jacob Sullum
profiles some of the prisoners of the war on drugs. “Denese Calixte, an
illiterate Haitian immigrant, managed to support her seven children by
picking fruit in Florida for about $60 a day. In 1994, she fell from a
ladder and injured her neck. Unable to work, she was desperate for money
when a neighborhood crack dealer offered her $200 to keep his supply in
her house at night. Early one morning, the police broke into her house
and found 69 grams of crack. Convicted with possession with intent to
deliver, Calixte was sentenced to l0 years in federal prison.”

Brenda Pearson, married for two decades, a mother of two, won’t be
eligible for parole for 50 years. Except for a heroin habit that hooked
her as a teenager, Pearson was leading a “stable, productive life,”
writes Sullum, holding down a job at a New York securities firm. “She
had never sold drugs or stolen anything to support her habit. In 1994, a
close friend of Pearson’s who was also a heroin user moved from New York
to Michigan. She asked Pearson to mail heroin to her because she was
having trouble finding a satisfactory supply. Over the course of a year,
Pearson sent her friend about 40 packages, each containing less than l.5
grams of heroin in single-dose bags that she had purchased on the
street.” Found guilty on 10 counts of drug distribution, Pearson got 10
consecutive sentences of five to 20 years each and isn’t eligible for
parole until she serves a 50-year minimum, more than the jail time
served by first-degree killers. No politicians got on TV, of course, to
claim that what Pearson and her friend did was none of our business,
just “private behavior.”

For Bush Jr. the cocaine dust-up in the press over rumored behavior a
generation ago, long before he held public office, looks like nothing
more than a minor bump on the road to the White House. With Bill
Clinton, of course, it’s worse, as usual. From the start, he presented
Democrats, especially those most committed to leveling out America’s
economic, political and social differences, with a fundamentally
irreconcilable dilemma. With America’s prisons being stacked to the
rafters with drug
offenders, disproportionately from “disenfranchised” communities, they
had to look the other way when Sally Perdue said Bill Clinton snorted
coke “like a real pro.” Watching first-time offenders, people with no
history of violence or predatory crime, get 10 and 20 years under
tougher drug sentencing, they had to cover their ears when Roger Clinton
said his brother had “a nose like a vacuum cleaner,” look away when
Gennifer Flowers said Bill Clinton used a “substantial amount” of
cocaine and had offered it to her, or when Sharlene Wilson talked about
her drug dealing and her “tooter,” the “one-hitter” as she called it. “I
watched Bill Clinton lean up against a wall,” she says. “He casually
stuck my tooter up his nose. He was so messed up that night.”

Some 32 percent of the prisoners in New York are now in for drug
offenses, compared to l0 percent in 1980. For the most part, they’re
users and small-time dealers, people like Jesus Portilla. “A first-time
offender, Portilla, an asbestos remover with a wife and small child,”
writes Sullum, “received a sentence of 8.3 to 25 years for a $30 cocaine
sale.” David Ciglar, a disabled ex-firefighter, injured during a rescue,
got 10 years and his house confiscated after DEA agents found 167
marijuana seedlings in his garage. First-time offender Angela Thompson
got 8 to 15 years. “When she was 17,” Sullum reports, “she had done the
bidding of her uncle and legal guardian by trying to sell cocaine
to an undercover cop.” No members of Congress went on TV, of course, to
argue that Portilla, Ciglar and Thompson shouldn’t be jailed because
they were just part of the drug scene, or just
“young.”

There are now nearly two million Americans behind bars, up from
500,000 in 1980. “About one in four are there for drug violations,” says
Sullum, “compared to about one in 10 in 1980.” In New York, first-time
offenders found guilty of possessing four ounces of cocaine, or selling
two ounces, receive mandatory sentences of 15 years to life — the same
as the penalty for murder. By federal Sentencing Commission guidelines,
every individual marijuana plant, from one to 99, counts as l00
grams, triggering sentences of l5 to 2l months per plant for first-time
offenders. With 100 plants or more, each plant carries a mandatory
sentence of five years. In Kansas last year, legislators debated a bill
that mandated life sentences without parole for anyone convicted of
growing l00 or more marijuana plants. “First degree murderers in
Kansas,” writes Sullum, “are eligible for parole after serving 25
years.”

The effect of all this? Zero dent in drug availability and lots of
prison time for those who deliver the “nose candy” to the unjailed.


Ralph R. Reiland, Associate Professor
of Economics at Robert Morris College, is the co-author of “Mom & Pop
vs. the Dreambusters,” available from
Amazon.com.

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