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Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 / 19 Tamuz, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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A tale of two drug wars | The latest New Yorker features a story about Vice President Dick Cheney's (now former) personal physician Dr. Gary Malakoff and the doctor's drug problem. According to reporter Jane Mayer, the George Washington University Medical Center learned in 1999 that Malakoff may have prescribed painkillers for himself by falsely using a colleague's name. Malakoff then entered a program for impaired physicians, which required that he be monitored but allowed him to practice medicine.

After Cheney suffered his fourth heart attack in November 2000, Malakoff assured America that Cheney was "up to the task of the most sensitive public office." Meanwhile, according to sealed records from his 2002 divorce, Malakoff continued to prescribe drugs to himself while under treatment, spending at least $46,238 in a two-and-a-half-year period ending in December 2001. The doctor is now on leave until September.

Malakoff's story highlights an intolerable disparity in how America treats people who break drug laws. When suspected offenders are middle class or white, they often are steered into treatment. But when the players are poor and black, they likely are steered behind bars.

Consider the story of Clarence Aaron. In 1992, the 22-year-old black college student introduced two drug dealers who arranged two huge cocaine deals. Aaron got paid $1,500 for hooking them up. The dealers were busted. Federal prosecutors charged Aaron to the harshest extent of the law. The higher-ups in the deal were able to flip on other players; all but one of the six have been let out of prison.

A rookie at crime, Aaron tried to lie his way out of a conviction. As he had no information to offer in exchange for a reduction in his mandatory-minimum sentence, Aaron was sentenced to life without parole.

The Malakoff and Aaron stories are different: One man apparently used illegal drugs; the other helped sell them. Aaron's actions definitely merited some prison time. But not life until he dies in prison -- for a first-time, non-violent drug offense.

That's barbaric.

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The New Yorker notes that fraudulent prescription writing is a crime that can result in suspension of a medical license and up to five years in prison. News stories indicate that the medical center never turned Malakoff in to the authorities. He wasn't prosecuted; he was treated under a monitoring program that, according to The Washington Post, allowed him to keep the Drug Enforcement Agency number that allows him to prescribe drugs.

While New Yorker reporter Mayer questions Malakoff's "fitness" to treat patients, the doctor did earn mention in The Washingtonian magazine's listing of top doctors in the last two years.

Even though he has been a model prisoner, Clarence Aaron won't get a second chance -- unless President Bush commutes his sentence.

Unfairly, I think, the legalize-it crowd likes to dismiss drug warriors as pinch-faced killjoys who don't want anyone to have a good time. That's wrong. Drug warriors are motivated, I believe, by the desire to protect children and adults from substances that lead to self-destructive behavior.

But draconian sentences for first-time, non-violent offenders also are destructive. They ruin people's lives. Since federal prosecutors often cut deals to let the high rollers skate in exchange for help convicting other drug dealers, the system can be hardest on low-level offenders with few connections.

The result is a system that is geared toward jailing minorities in order to protect the precious white children of privileged white adults.

So while white and black Americans use drugs in comparable numbers, their conviction rates are not comparable. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, whites make up 75 percent of the U.S. population but only a quarter of the federal drug defendants in 2001. Blacks comprise 12 percent of the general population but 30 percent of federal drug defendants.

"Instead of being treated with compassion, their lives and families are destroyed," noted Monica Pratt of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "There shouldn't be such a disparity in a system that prides itself on equal justice for all under the law."

Dr. Malakoff gets a second chance. Clarence Aaron spends the rest of his life in jail. That's not justice.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate