Even the most enthusiastic drug warrior would have a hard time explaining why Ernest Brown Pryor should spend 13 months in prison. The 19-year-old University of Virginia student, who made the mistake of selling an undercover police officer a half-ounce of marijuana and a third-ounce of hallucinogenic mushrooms, pleaded guilty in June to two counts of drug distribution near a school. After imposing the penalty required by federal law, U.S. District Judge James Harry Michael, Jr. said the sentence "tears up the court's conscience."
There will be more such sentences. Pryor was one of 12 students arrested on drug-trafficking charges at three University of Virginia fraternity houses last spring. After a six-month undercover investigation, 40 federal, state, and local officers raided the houses and seized about a dozen sandwich bags of marijuana, a few LSD tabs, and some psilocybin mushrooms. They also seized the three frat houses, valued at $1 million, under a federal asset-forfeiture law. In theory, some of the students could receive sentences of 100 years or more.
Like Judge Michael, Charlottesville Police Chief John Bowen, who led the operation, had some misgivings. According to The New York Times, Bowen felt a "pang of sorrow" just before the raid and reflected that "several young lives were about to be ruined."
On balance, though, Bowen had no regrets: "While it was sad that a dozen young men would have to be arrested for dealing drugs, the price would be worth it if those arrests saved the lives and reputations of thousands of other young people." Perhaps so, but there was no reason to believe that the arrests would have any such effect. Neither common sense nor scientific evidence suggests that what these 12 students were doing—selling relatively benign mind-altering substances to willing buyers—posed a serious threat to anyone.
But the attempt to justify is noteworthy. Bowen knows that busting middle-class, white college kids gets people's attention in a way that busting poor, black inner-city kids does not. Michael called Pryor's case "outside the mainstream of drug cases." In other words, a kid like Pryor gets the shaft once in a while, but most of the time we're putting away the bad guys.
Drug warriors have to believe this. They can concede the obvious—that prohibition breeds violence and corruption, for example. But they cannot let go of the idea that, on the whole, the people punished by drug laws deserve it.
After all, drug offenders represent a large and growing share of the prison population. More than half of the inmates in federal prisons are there because of drug-law violations, up from about a quarter a decade ago. In local jails, 23 percent of prisoners are drug offenders, up from 9 percent six years ago. If most of these people are guilty only of crimes similar to Pryor's, we have to ask whether injustice is the rule, rather than the exception, in the war on drugs.
A recent study of prisoners in Florida suggests that drug warriors have a lot more to explain than the sentence received by one college student. Researchers at Florida State University examined a sample of 4,398 drug offenders processed by the state Department of Corrections. They found that most drug offenders do not commit crimes against people or property. "Many persons who commit property and violent crimes are also drug offenders," the researchers note, but "these represent a minority of drug offenders."
It's true that, as a group, drug offenders are more likely to commit crimes against people and property than the average citizen is. But so are blacks, poor people, and young, single men. Moreover, there are several ways to construe the link between drugs and crime. It could be that drug use encourages crime, or that people who are apt to commit crimes are also more likely to use illegal drugs. (Either way, prohibition makes matters worse by creating a black market and raising drug prices.)
But whatever analysis you apply, enforcing the drug laws is a very inefficient way to protect people from theft and assault. Indeed, because of prison overcrowding caused largely by the war on drugs, putting away a drug offender means releasing early someone who represents a direct threat to the public. To make room for kids who sell pot and funny mushrooms, our legal system frees burglars, muggers, rapists, and murderers. That's not just wrong. It's stupid.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Pryor Conviction".