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Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 1999 /3 Tishrei, 5760

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

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The real drug penalties -- ARE WE LIVING IN MALAYSIA? You might think so, from the rhetoric accompanying demands that George W. Bush produce a detailed chronology of his youthful drug use. After all, the case is made that he is a "hypocrite" because he now supports tough drug laws that put people in prison for simple possession of small quantities of drugs.

But to show that the Texas governor is hypocritical for supporting the drug war, it must first be shown that youths are now routinely imprisoned for drug offenses no more serious than those (still only assumed) committed by Bush in his wayward youth. And in their zeal to convict Bush of such hypocrisy, the media (with help from drug-law reformers, political opponents and the honestly mistaken) have conjured up an archipelago of narco-gulags where otherwise promising youths are consigned to dank dungeons for a single youthful episode of recreational drug use.

Legal-affairs writer Stuart Taylor, for example, writes that Bush's dilemma invites reconsideration of "the draconian drug-sentencing regime that has packed prisons with non-violent, small-time drug offenders."

Columnist David Corn tweaked the GOP front-runner's double standard in backing "drug laws that would place a young adult in the slammer for possessing minuscule amounts of drugs."

Even the estimable William Buckley writes that "60 percent of the prison population of Texas is there for drug abuse." To further dramatize the futility of our drug laws, Buckley states that "80 million Americans have used illegal drugs."

Do not panic. Do not move to Malaysia or Turkey for their permissive drug climates. Buckley's own data tell us that there's something fishy about all the scare-mongering regarding the nation's drug laws. If 80 million Americans have used illegal drugs -- are there 80 million Americans in prison for violating drug laws? Hardly. The truth is that first-time offenders caught with user quantities of powder cocaine (widely guessed to have been the young George W.'s offense) very, very rarely receive prison terms.

How come? John Walters, former deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says "De facto, America has decriminalized drug use." He adds, "Nobody wants a case with a baggie of dope for personal use.

Sergeants and lieutenants laugh at that. The criminal justice system is going after traffickers, not users. There are very rare and unique situations of imprisonment for usage, but when the stories are checked out they almost invariably turn out to be contrived, a partial story, misleading, or don't deal with other evidence against the accused."

The data are complicated. There are state, federal and local statistics. Many categories overlap. There are different laws in different states. And plea-bargaining down to "possession" from "trafficking" may dilute some statistics, but it doesn't mean that the convicted haven't been in the vicious loop that ends up getting drugs to children. Morgan Reynolds, director of criminal justice at the National Center for Policy Analysis, in Dallas, says, "The overwhelming majority of drug offenders are bad actors and had some contact with the criminal justice system already."

One reason that it's tough to make it to prison for simple drug possession is that small amounts hardly ever merit incarceration. According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, of the 4,666 powder-cocaine offenders sentenced to federal prison terms in 1998, just 63 (that's less than 1.4 percent) were sentenced for amounts of less than 50 grams. But even 50 grams can translate into 50 personal units, a quantity more appropriate for a fledgling business than a simple recreational toot.

Looking at state statistics, Reynolds notes that 70 percent of prisoners on drug charges are there for trafficking, vs. 27 percent in for possession.

And a majority of those in state prisons on drug charges (54 percent) were actually under some kind of supervision by the criminal justice system at the time of their arrest -- either on parole, on probation or escaped from custody. The vast majority (83 percent) had criminal histories.

Looking at the state situation, Walters notes that "new admissions to state prisons for conviction of possession for all drugs combined is well under 10 percent of total admissions."

There may indeed be a case for reform in our drug laws. But such reform should proceed from a base of facts. If someone like the George W. Bush of long ago did today what some allege Bush did more than a quarter of a century ago -- use drugs, not traffic in drugs -- there is no way such a young person would end up incarcerated.

The hypocrite-mongers are wrong. Or hypocritical.

. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, is a contributing editor for and George. You may comment by clicking here.

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