In December, five students at Columbia University were arrested and charged with running one of the largest college-campus drug conspiracies in recent memory. This week, criminal defense attorneys for two of the students announced that they plan to ask the judge to approve them for diversion into a drug court, where they could be given drug treatment and probation instead of a felony conviction and a prison record.
As a recent Canadian Press article mentioned, the arrest of five young men who seemingly had all the advantages has put a spotlight on New York’s 2009 reform of its drug laws, which got rid of mandatory minimum sentences and created drug diversion programs.
The Columbia drug bust “is probably the case that’s going to cause light to be shed on what these new laws mean: When diversion is appropriate, and what the Legislature intended when it cut back so drastically the Rockefeller laws,” said Marc Agnifilo, a defense lawyer for one of the students.
In the first part of this series, we looked at the 2009 reforms and the arguments for and against them. In this part, we’ll look specifically at the students’ cases.
What should society do about drug addicts who don’t fit the stereotype?
The five Columbia students were arrested after an undercover officer allegedly bought around $11,000 worth of prescription drugs, marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and LSD from the students over the course of five months. Upon their arrests, police also found drugs, drug paraphernalia and over $6,600 in cash in the students’ rooms.
They have been charged with varying degrees of possession with intent to distribute drugs, although prosecutors have indicated that they plan to add to the charges.
The first of the boys asking for diversion into a drug treatment program is a 20-year-old anthropology and political science major who is active in campus efforts to prevent sexual violence. He is accused of selling marijuana and amphetamines, which he says he did in order to pay his tuition.
According to his criminal defense lawyer, it was clear long before the arrest that he had a serious drug problem. Concerned, his father even called Columbia to see if they could help with his son’s $70-a-day marijuana addiction.
The second young man is a 22-year-old senior majoring in applied mathematics. He interned last summer as a biostatistician at a cancer research program and had planned to go to graduate school. He is accused of selling LSD and Ecstasy. His lawyer says he also has a demonstrable substance-abuse problem. Just as important, according to his attorney, he has a lot to offer.
“At the end of the day, [the applied-mathematics major] is better off among us, working to help society, than being labeled as a felon and being ostracized,” said his attorney.
Imprisoning the young men would not only be a loss to society, but it would also be a shame, their lawyers say. Their willingness to enter treatment, along with their general success in other areas, makes them statistically very likely to overcome their drug addictions with treatment.
If given a drug diversion, the students would likely undergo drug treatment for more than a year while on probation. If they succeed and stay out of trouble, their drug charges could be dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.
Under New York law, they have to show that their alleged crimes were driven by drug dependency. Even then, it is up to the judge’s discretion.
What do you think? Successful people with promising careers ahead of them do become addicted to drugs despite the advantages they have. If they do, should they be given the chance to enter drug treatment instead of going to jail?
Source: Canadian Press, “Columbia U. drug dealing arrests test overhaul of New York’s tough drug laws,” Jennifer Peltz, January 31, 2011