Drug War

Mitch Daniels' Disappearing Felony

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Yesterday The Daily Princetonian published a profile of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels that focuses on a drug bust during his junior year at Princeton:

Officers found enough marijuana in his room to fill two size 12 shoe boxes, reports of the incident say. He and the other inhabitants of the room were also charged with possession of LSD and prescription drugs without a prescription. Daniels and his two roommates in 111 Cuyler Hall, Marc Stuart '71 and Richard Stockton '71, were arrested and, after plea bargaining, Daniels eventually escaped with a $350 fine for "maintaining a common nuisance." The charges against Stockton were eventually dropped.

Daniels, a Republican who served as George W. Bush's budget director, portrays this incident as a youthful mistake for which he paid an appropriate price. "I don't make excuses for anything," he says. "Justice was served." Yet he does make excuses. In a 1989 Washington Post op-ed piece that the Princetonian quotes, Daniels attributed his arrest to the "unfortunate confluence of my wild oats period and America's libertine apogee," writing:

On my college campus, just as on most college campuses, marijuana was as easy to obtain as Budweiser beer and was viewed with equal complacency. For a time, I was a carefree consumer of both.

Stockton, his ex-roommate, likewise tells the Princetonian:

We just kind of did what college juniors did. It was very normal to what the college culture was.

Statistically speaking, however, smoking pot was not normal in 1970, when Daniels was arrested. Survey data from the early 1970s indicate that maybe a third of 18-to-25-year-olds were smoking pot. What Daniels retrospectively identifies as "America's libertine apogee" was in fact just the beginning of an upward trend, at least as far as drug use went. According to data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, marijuana consumption among college-age Americans peaked in 1979, when half of them reported smoking pot in the previous year. The Monitoring the Future Study shows a similar trend among high school seniors. Daniels' attempt to minimize his responsibility by claiming everyone was doing it exaggerates the extent of marijuana use when he was in college.

More important, Daniels' assertion that "justice was served" obscures what a huge break he got. Under current New Jersey law, possessing more than 50 grams (about 1.8 ounces) of marijuana is a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison. Given the amount of pot Daniels had (enough to fill two shoeboxes), he easily could have been charged with intent to distribute, which under current law triggers a penalty of three to five years (for less than five pounds). And at the time of Daniels' arrest in May 1970, New Jersey's marijuana penalties were even more severe. Six months after his arrest, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided a case involving an 18-year-old who was caught with a tiny amount of pot (clearly just for personal use) and got a sentence of two to three years in prison. Concluding that "the sentence was entirely too harsh," the court noted that state law set a minimum sentence of two years but allowed it to be suspended for a first offense. The court ruled that "a suspended sentence with an appropriate term of probation is sufficient penalty for a person who is convicted for the first time of possessing marihuana for his own use." Given the legal situation prior to this ruling, Daniels was incredibly lucky to get off with a $350 fine, and he was able to do so only because he did not actually plead guilty to marijuana possession—only to the lesser offense of "maintaining a common nuisance."

In light of these facts, The American Prospect's Paul Waldman is right to fault Daniels for minimizing the consequences he avoided:

His logic seems be this: When the police found me with a huge amount of drugs, I was given a slap on the wrist, and I then went on to a productive life. Which shows that kids today who did what I did ought to have to leave school and get chucked in jail with murderers and rapists.

Daniels' whitewash is especially troubling in light of the policy recommendations he made in that 1989 op-ed piece, which he wrote when he was president of the Hudson Institute:

In calling for enforcement of drug laws against even casual users—publicizing the names of arrestees, at least minimal fines or jail time for those convicted and requiring no-use policies from colleges and other beneficiaries of government funds and so on—[drug czar] William Bennett is exactly right. The threshold test of seriousness on the drug issue—for President Bush in reviewing the plan and for your congressman in reacting to it—will be their enthusiasm for these sections. In my opinion, any public official who shrinks from user sanctions should be disqualified from further participation in the drug debate.

Daniels, with his two shoeboxes full of marijuana, was not exactly a "casual user." Under New Jersey law then and now, he committed a felony. Yet he got away with a slap on the wrist, and here he is advocating "jail time" and a criminal record, with all the ancillary penalties that entails, for anyone caught with half a joint.

As Waldman's American Prospect colleague Adam Serwer points out, Daniels' galling hypocrisy is mitigated by his more recent support for sentencing reform, including reduced penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. But if Daniels really thinks a $350 fine is an appropriate penalty for someone caught with several ounces of marijuana, he should at least support decriminalizing possession. Currently in Indiana, the amount of pot Daniels had triggers a sentence of six months to three years.