Ivy League drug conspiracy: ‘Issues of privilege and promise’ – 1

When five Columbia University students were arrested on drug charges in December, it brought up a number of troubling questions about America’s War on Drugs. It was allegedly one of the largest college-campus drug conspiracies in recent memory — run by five Ivy League students with majors like applied mathematics and anthropology.

This week, criminal defense lawyers for two of the five students announced that they plan to ask the judge to grant a diversion of the cases to a drug court, where they could be offered drug treatment instead of jail.

The arrest of five bright young people at an Ivy League university has meaning for people on both sides of drug policy, as a recent Canadian Press article examined. Proponents of harsher drug laws see privileged young men who don’t deserve a pass. Rehabilitation advocates see promising young people who should be given an opportunity to recover and contribute to society.

In this two-part series, we will discuss the various reactions to the Columbia students’ petitions for drug diversion.

2009 drug sentencing overhaul in New York tested by privileged defendants

For decades, New York’s “Rockefeller laws” were some of the most draconian drug laws in the country, pushed into law by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973 to fight drugs’ “reign of terror.” What resulted, according to critics, was a costly, racist regime that locked up a generation of people stricken by drug addiction.

After decades of having, in 2009 New York moved away from the crackdown culture that wasn’t working and toward a system intended to reduce drug-related crime by addressing the underlying problem of addiction. It eliminated many mandatory minimum sentences, gave judges the option to sentence drug offenders to treatment, and set up a system of drug courts.

Should the 2009 reforms apply to more-or-less privileged defendants accused of conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and LSD, along with possession with intent to sell prescription drugs? Even backers of the 2009 reforms find the concept challenging.

New York state representative Jeffrion Aubry represents a predominantly black district in Queens and was a key supporter of the reforms.

“[A]re we to then look at those who are less privileged in our society and may have more difficulties, and punish them more harshly, when (the students’) options were clearly more extensive?” he commented. “It’s a complex issue.”

State Senator Martin Golden opposed the changes to the drug laws and opposes diversion for the Columbia defendants.

“I think you really have to take a close look at this, and is this really what we meant by a second chance?” he said.

Do you think kids at a prestigious college who get heavily involved with drugs are just opportunists who have wasted their good fortune and deserve to go to jail? Or are they just the people we most want to rehabilitate?

In the second part of this series we will discuss the details of the Columbia students’ cases and the arguments for giving them drug treatment instead of prison. Visit this blog again to learn more, or subscribe to our RSS feed to receive automatic updates.

Source: Canadian Press, “Columbia U. drug dealing arrests test overhaul of New York’s tough drug laws,” Jennifer Peltz, January 31, 2011