A Vial Crime

Meet Sam Zhadanov, 68-year-old plastic molder and drug-war casualty.

On Monday, January 16, Sam Zhadanov reported to the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Pennsylvania, to begin serving a five-year sentence for money laundering, conspiracy to sell drug paraphernalia, and conspiracy to aid and abet the distribution of crack cocaine. Given the charges, he could have received a sentence of 14 years to life. But because he pleaded guilty and let the government take his assets, the prosecution certified that he had been cooperative and was therefore eligible for a "downward departure" from the mandatory minimum sentence. In a sense, then, he is lucky.

But Sam Zhadanov, a 68-year-old engineer who emigrated from Russia in 1973, does not feel lucky. An inventor who holds patents in Russia and the United States, he feels the government has robbed him of his last productive years, not to mention the fruits of his hard work during the two decades since he came to America with his wife and son.

Starting out as a machinist with a few hundred dollars to his name, Zhadanov built a successful plastic-molding business, Vortex Products, which the government would later falsely depict as a shady, fly-by-night operation devoted to serving crack dealers. At first Vortex manufactured Zhadanov's inventions, such as a shower massage and a portable dishwasher. Later it also made items to order for various businesses, including toy, computer, and medical-supply companies. Eschewing vacations, fancy cars, and luxury homes, Zhadanov never had much use for the money he made, except to reinvest it in the business.

Longtime friends report that Zhadanov was always quick to help fellow immigrants, even while he and his family were still struggling. Eight of them told the court that sentenced him: "Sam helped more than 30 Russian immigrants to start their lives in the United States. He shared his apartment, food, and everything he had with many of us when we came here. It was not because he had extra (he barely had enough for his family) but because we needed it. Sam helped us to find work, move to a new home, buy the first car. Most importantly, he was always there for us and gave us tremendous energy and moral support....We know Sam as a person of rare kindness, exceptional honesty, and uncompromising integrity."

Vitaly Rogalsky, a professor at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, told the court he had sought Zhadanov's help in developing a device to increase the efficiency of bottles used to grow cell cultures. Zhadanov created the prototype for free, without a written agreement. "Mr. Zhadanov struck me as...a true enthusiast absolutely devoted to progress in medicine," Rogalsky wrote, noting that Zhadanov had later invented a new kind of safety syringe designed to prevent the spread of disease. "It is absolutely clear that Sam is an important contributor to our society and deserves to be treated as such."

Even after he officially retired and stopped taking a salary from Vortex, Zhadanov continued to work long hours at the factory. "What will I do for five years?" he asks, reflecting on his prison sentence. "I need my work. Taking away my equipment is like taking away my hands."

Zhadanov, who has never had trouble with the law before, is bewildered by the concepts of drug paraphernalia, money laundering, and conspiracy, which can turn business transactions into felonies. "What crime have I committed, that I should go to jail for five years?" he asks. "I made a mistake. Why do you give for a mistake five years in prison?"

Zhadanov's mistake was to manufacture little plastic containers, about an inch long and the width of a pencil, similar to the ones fancy stores use for perfume samples. These containers are also used by drug dealers to hold small nuggets of crack cocaine (half a gram or so). They are perfectly legal when intended for a legitimate purpose. But when they are intended for packaging crack, they are considered drug paraphernalia. As far as Sam Zhadanov was concerned, he made perfume sample bottles. According to the government, he made crack vials.

The entire case against Zhadanov rests on this distinction. The government does not allege that he or any of the other defendants in the case ever saw any crack, let alone sold it. "There's not a single drug dealer anywhere," says Eli Zhadanov, Sam's son. "This case does not have one ounce of drugs or one name of a drug dealer--or a drug user, for that matter. Not one."

Sam Zhadanov's story shows how the drug laws have expanded to cover behavior increasingly remote from drug dealing. Because crack is illegal, so are the containers that carry it. The money used to buy the containers is tainted, and so is the business that accepts it. In this way a decent, productive, conscientious man can lose his freedom and everything he owns, even though his arrest and imprisonment cannot possibly have an impact on the drug trade.

In effect, the federal law against drug paraphernalia punishes the crime of thinking the wrong thought while doing something--in this case, making plastic containers--that is otherwise permitted. Legally, the issue is straightforward: What did Sam Zhadanov know, and when did he know it? But we should not lose sight of the moral issue: Whatever was going on in his mind--and no one but Zhadanov can ever know that for sure--is it right to put a man in prison for making little plastic containers? The question should give pause to supporters of drug prohibition.

The prosecutors conceded that Zhadanov initially did not know that the containers had anything to do with drugs. But they argued that he must have soon realized he was manufacturing an illegal product, given the suspicious behavior of his customers. It does seem that Zhadanov was oddly naive and incurious about the ultimate use of the containers, and he says he regrets that he was not more inquisitive.

Yet Zhadanov's behavior is not surprising given his personality. A slight, thin man with short, gray hair and metal-framed glasses, Zhadanov gets excited about a better way to make a plastic toothpick. He has a heavy Russian accent, and his command of English is spotty, but when he talks about his work, the words flow and he gestures enthusiastically. When the conversation turns to financial or legal matters, he consults his wife, Anna, an engineer who served as Vortex's bookkeeper, for details.

"When he touches a new object," Eli Zhadanov says of his father, "he starts turning and twisting it to see how it is made and how it works. He observes the world around him in terms of building blocks and working mechanisms....Whether [customers] introduce the product as a 'safety syringe' or a 'perfume sample,' he treats them all in terms of cavities, runners, and pins." After finding the most efficient way to manufacture a product, designing the necessary molds, and setting up the manufacturing process, Zhadanov would move on to the next challenge. He was not very interested in production once it became routine, let alone in what happened to the product after it left the factory.

"For me, this was a legal job," Zhadanov says of the work order that led to his imprisonment. "I never imagined that I had to be responsible for it. I am a custom molder. I never knew that plastic could be illegal."

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