Commentary

The Drug-War Distraction:
Feds Have Better Things to Do than Take on the Role of National Vice Squad

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register on December 16, 2004.
In Ashcroft v. Raich, the Justice Department fought in the Supreme Court to maintain the right to jail sick people taking marijuana on the advice of their doctors and with the approval of their state government. The Bush administration has also begun cracking down on pain-management doctors for allegedly overprescribing medication, sending a message to other doctors to err on the side of underprescribing for patients in pain.

Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration carried out “Operation Pipe Dreams” and “Operation Headhunter,” nationwide sweeps designed to corral sellers of marijuana pipes, “roach clips,” and other drug paraphernalia. One of their high- profile busts was comedian Tommy Chong, who on Sept. 11, 2003, was sentenced to nine months in federal prison for selling bongs on the Internet.

What’s going on here? One would have thought that with al-Qaida promising to strike again in the U.S., federal law enforcement would have better things to do than behave like the local vice squad.

Yet the Bush administration continues to direct the full weight of the federal government against small-time drug offenders.

Case in point: On Nov. 16, Utah federal district court judge Paul G. Cassell sentenced 25-year-old Weldon Angelos to 55 years in prison for selling small bags of marijuana to a police informant. Angelos carried a pistol in an ankle holster while selling the drugs. No one accused him of threatening anyone with the weapon, but the law imposed a severe mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession during a drug deal. Judge Cassell, a conservative Republican, called the sentence “unjust, cruel and even irrational,” but said that the law left him “no choice.”

Cassell ran through the maximum penalties for hijacking an airplane (25 years); terrorist bombing intending to kill a bystander (20 years); and kidnapping (13 years). He noted that just two hours earlier he’d heard a case where a man beat a senior citizen to death with a log, and imposed a sentence of 22 years in that case. Cassell asked “is there a rational basis … for giving Mr. Angelos more time than the hijacker, the murderer, the rapist?”

It’s a good question. Whatever one’s take on the drug war, there’s something very wrong with a system that frequently prescribes stiffer sentences for victimless crimes than for violent ones. And that’s what federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws do: In 2001, the average federal drug trafficking sentence was 72.7 months; the average federal manslaughter sentence was just 34.3 months.

That disparity is one of the factors that led Justice Anthony Kennedy to tell the American Bar Association in 2001, “In too many cases, mandatory minimums are unwise and unjust.”

But the Angelos case raises questions that go beyond sentencing reform. Chief among them: Why, in an age of genuine threats to American security, is the federal government focused so obsessively on drug use?

Law enforcement resources are limited. Money and manpower spent policing Americans’ consumption choices is money and manpower that’s not available to deal with serious federal issues, like terrorism.

We should have learned that lesson some time ago. As was widely reported in 2002, the Phoenix FBI office knew about Islamist radicals training at U.S. flight schools prior to Sept. 11, 2001, but could not get the bureau’s main office in Washington, D.C., to take action. Kenneth Williams, the FBI agent who recommended canvassing flight schools for possible terrorists, told Congress that he couldn’t get a proper hearing because “counterterrorism and counterintelligence have always been considered the ‘bastard stepchild’ of the FBI because these programs do not generate the statistics” that violent crime and drug cases do. Williams’ Phoenix office kept an internal list of enforcement priorities: drug interdiction was second, terrorism, fourth.

Federal priorities have shifted somewhat in the aftermath of Sept. 11, but not nearly enough. Drug policy in the United States is far too punitive, far too centralized and distracts far too much from important national issues. It’s well past time to get federal priorities straight.

Gene Healy is the senior editor at the Cato Institute.