Douglas, drugs and the law


More ridiculousness in America’s war on drugs yesterday, as the son of multimillionaire actor Michael Douglas was sentenced for five years for dealing methamphetamine from a trendy New York hotel.

The statutory minimum for this offence is ten years.

Whilst it is unusual to see a rich, white young man going to jail for drugs offences at all, this case does little to defend against the statistical fact that drug laws, particularly in America, are, for whatever reason, overwhelmingly enforced against poor young men from ethnic minorities with little or no education.

The fact that Cameron Douglas received a relatively lenient sentence highlights this problem in waging the drug war. Although the minimum sentence is technically much higher, it does seem somewhat perverse to throw a non-violent offender in jail at taxpayer expense for such a considerable length of time. This is especially true when it is clear that Douglas, like all drug addicts, needs treatment rather than punishment if he needs anything at all.

However, at the same time, the offence for which he was actually charged is the same that is used to go after violent, gang-affiliated thugs who sell exactly the same chemicals.

Because the same offence is used to criminalise such different people, it is only through mitigation pleadings in sentencing that differences between the dangerous, violent criminal, and the non-violent one can be distinguished. This is a relatively arbitrary process that gives an unfair prominence to wealth, race, social class, education and family background (or even more unjustly, a defendant’s political connections and the quality of his lawyers) to decide how long a person stays in jail.

The clear point of all this is that it is not the drugs themselves that should be the cause for coercive intervention by the state. Rather the harm done directly to other individuals is what should determine criminal liability and sanction. Before the government wastes time and taxpayers’ money prosecuting people, it should make sure that it is only doing so for violent offences. It should refuse to prosecute non-violent people who choose to make a living selling other people the means to get high.