Bryson's America: Why do killers get a better deal than junkies?

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The Independent Culture
I RECENTLY learned from an old friend in Iowa that if you are caught in possession of a single dose of LSD in my native state you face a mandatory sentence of seven years in prison without parole.

Never mind that you are, say, 18 years old and of previous good character, that this will ruin your life, that it will cost the state $25,000 a year to keep you incarcerated. Never mind that perhaps you didn't even know you had the LSD - that a friend put it in the glovebox of your car without your knowledge or maybe saw police coming through the door at a party and shoved it into your hand before you could react. Never mind any extenuating circumstances whatever. This is America in the 1990s and there are no exceptions where drugs are concerned. Sorry, but that's the way it is. Next.

It would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the ferocity with which the US now prosecutes drug offenders. In 15 states you can be sentenced to life in prison for owning a single marijuana plant. Newt Gingrich, when he was still House Speaker, proposed that anyone caught bringing as little as two ounces of marijuana into the US should be imprisoned for life without possibility of parole. Anyone caught bringing more than two ounces would be executed. A law to this effect is currently working its way through Congress.

According to a 1990 study, 90 per cent of all first-time drug offenders in federal courts were sentenced to an average of five years in prison. Violent first-time offenders, by contrast, were imprisoned less often and received on average just four years in prison. You are, in short, less likely to go to prison for kicking an old lady down the stairs than you are for being caught in possession of a single dose of any illicit drug. Call me soft, but that seems to me a trifle disproportionate.

Please understand it is not remotely my intention here to speak in favour of drugs. I appreciate that drugs can mess you up in a big way. I have an old schoolmate who made one LSD voyage too many in about 1977 and since that time has sat on a rocker on his parents' porch examining the backs of his hands. So I know what drugs can do. I just haven't reached the point where it seems to me appropriate to put to death someone for being foolish. Not many of my fellow countrymen would agree with me. It is the clear and fervent wish of most Americans to put drug users behind bars, and they are prepared to pay almost any price to achieve this. The people of Texas recently voted down a $750m bond proposal to build new schools, but endorsed a $1bn bond for new prisons, mostly to house people convicted of drug offences.

America's prison population has more than doubled since 1982. There are now 1,630,000 prisoners. Sixty per cent of federal prisoners are serving time for non-violent offences, mostly to do with drugs. America's prisons are crammed with non-violent petty criminals whose problem is a weakness for illegal substances.

Because most drug offences carry mandatory sentences and exclude the possibility of parole, other prisoners are having to be released early to make room for all the new drug offenders pouring into the system. In consequence, the average convicted murderer in the US now serves less than six years, the average rapist just five. Moreover, once he is out, the murderer or rapist is immediately eligible for welfare, food stamps and other federal assistance. A convicted drug user, no matter how desperate his circumstances may become, is denied these benefits for the rest of his life.

The persecution doesn't end there. My friend in Iowa once spent four months in a state prison for a drug offence. This was almost 20 years ago. He did his time and since then has been completely clean. Recently, he applied for a temporary job with the Postal Service as a holiday relief mail sorter . Not only did he not get the job, but a week or so later he received an affidavit threatening him with prosecution for failing to declare that he had a felony conviction involving drugs.

The Postal Service runs background checks for convictions as a matter of routine - but only with respect to drugs. Had he killed his grandmother and raped his sister 25 years ago, he would in all likelihood have got the job.

It gets more amazing. The government can seize your property if it was used in connection with a drug offence, even if you did not know it. In Connecticut, according to a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, a federal prosecutor named Leslie C Ohra made a name for herself by seizing the property of almost anyone even tangentially connected with a drug offence - including a couple in their eighties whose grandson was found to be selling marijuana out of his bedroom. The couple had no idea of course. They lost the house anyway. (Soon after, Ohra's own 18-year-old son was arrested for selling LSD out of his mother's car and alleged also to have sold drugs from her house. She was merely transferred to another assignment.)

The saddest part of this zealous vindictiveness is that it simply does not work. America spends $50bn a year fighting drugs, and yet drug use goes on and on. The government enacts increasingly draconian laws until we find ourselves at the ludicrous point where the Speaker of the House can seriously propose to execute people - strap them to a gurney and snuff out their lives - for possessing the botanical equivalent of two bottles of vodka.

My solution to the problem would be to take that $50bn and spend it on rehabilitation and prevention. Some of it could be used to take coachloads of youngsters to look at that schoolmate of mine on his Iowa porch. I am sure it would persuade most of them not to try drugs in the first place.