LATER EDIT: The essay is archived here.
Cocaine is a Hell of a Drug (Political Crimes Edition)
Advice for aspiring criminals looking to reduce the opportunity costs of time spent in prison: if you’re given a choice between selling drugs or murdering a young woman, choose murder so you’ll get a shorter prison sentence. Consider the example of Robert Chambers, the so-called “Preppie Killer” who in 1986 strangled Jennifer Levin to death in Central Park. He got 15 years for the deed, served it, got out and just returned to serve a 19-year sentence for selling cocaine. And that was a plea bargain; he could’ve gone to prison for life.
Fifteen years for killing someone; 19-rather-than-life for selling illicit feelgood powder. If you run a poll asking people “Who deserves the harshest punishment: someone who strangles you to death, or who offers to sell you some drugs?” 5 percent of respondents will say “the strangler” and 95 percent won’t say anything because they’re busy giving you that look folks reserve for stupid questions. Similar responses follow if you ask college students, “Who would you rather have living in your dorm: a guy with a drug conviction on his record or a guy with a conviction for rape or murder?” But rape or murder won’t disqualify anyone from receiving financial aid. A drug conviction just might.
Why should victimless drug crimes result in harsher penalties than those which inflict actual suffering upon innocents? Aldous Huxley explained the rationale in 1932, when he published Brave New World. Check out chapter 10, where the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explains why Bernard Marx should face harsh penalties for being a misfit who criticizes the system:
“Consider the matter dispassionately, Mr. Foster, and you will see that no offense is as heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual – and after all, what is an individual? … We can make a new one with the greatest ease – as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.”
In the days of the Russian gulags, those who criticized the Communist regime faced much harsher penalties than those who merely robbed or killed the regime’s citizens. Alexander Dolgun, in his book Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag, reported that Soviet political prisoners convicted of crimes like “having an anti-Soviet dream” floundered at the absolute bottom of the prison-camp hierarchy, while murderers and thieves reigned near the top.
Why should pot sellers rather than rapists be kept off college campuses? Why does selling coke give a man a stiffer sentence than strangling a woman half his size? What do drug offenders have in common with the anti-Soviet dreamers?Simple. Any government that cares enough to establish a class of political crimes will care enough to treat such crimes with special harshness. After all, unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.