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Drugs and Prison at Columbia

By Richard Lehr

During the first week of my freshman year my freshman adviser held a meeting for his advisees. It was the first and last formal meeting he held all year. Most of what he said that night is now blurred with the rest of the horrible memories of those first weeks at Harvard, but he did offer an interesting if not unusual piece of advice.

"If you're gonna get high," I can remember him saying to the roomful of wide-eyed, naive freshmen, "stay inside the walls." He went on to describe how the Harvard Police were a bunch of good guys, but warned us all to be leery of the Cambridge Police. Then at the end of his talk he said it again: "Stay inside the walls when you get high."

For the students of Columbia University in New York the walls may be tumbling down under the pressure of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller's new narcotic laws. In early December, right before Christmas break, five Columbia students were arrested for allegedly dealing drugs; two for reportedly dealing cocaine and three for reportedly dealing marijuana. Under New York State's draconian narcotics laws, which went into effect last September 1, the two students charged with dealing cocaine face sentences from life imprisonment to no less than 15 years, and the other three students charged with dealing marijuana face sentences up to 15 years.

The students don't appear to have been big league pushers involved in some million-dollar underground narcotics ring. All five students were residents of either Beta Theta Pi or Delta Phi, two fraternity houses located just off campus. Three of the students are fraternity officers and two are varsity wrestlers. The arrests for marijuana dealing consisted of two separate deals; in the first instance a student allegedly sold four pounds of marijuana for $800, and in the other instance another student, the president of Delta Phi, allegedly sold 15 ounces of marijuana.

The cocaine arrests occurred December 7, when one of the students arrested reportedly sold four ounces of cocaine. All of the sales were made to a police undercover agent who was posing as a student and living in one of the fraternity houses. Could a narcotics agent pose as a student and live in a fraternity house without anyone knowing about it? Apparently so.

In a recent article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia University's president, William McGill, warned students against thinking the campus is a sanctuary for drugs. "Undercover agents do operate on campus without my knowledge. There is no prior consultation, notification or warning of any kind when they make arrests," McGill said.

The idea of undercover agents posing as students is frightening. The idea that two of the students face possible life imprisonment is even more frightening. What did Rockefeller have in mind, or was he thinking at all, when he had the ruthless drug laws enacted? One of the undergraduates arrested, a pre-law student who plans to try to continue with school while awaiting trial, said after his arrest, "I'm scared to death." Is Rockefeller satisfied with this kind of response, or with his severe laws, which scare people to death instead of solving the drug problem?

The New York Times in early October reported that for September 1 to 27, the first month when the new narcotics laws were in effect, only 252 felony drug arrests were made, compared to an average of 950 arrests a month in 1972. This would appear to defend Rockefeller's "scare them to death" approach. But the same Times article reports that drug activities are only being pushed further underground and that police officials attributed the decline to the narcotics squad's policy of concentrating on major narcotics traffickers. However, the arrests of five Columbia students doesn't appear to be a case of major narcotics trafficking.

A recent editorial in the Spectator read like this: "Until those almost incredible arrests brought the reality of the new drug laws home to campus, the law was seen by most students as an irrelevant, unthreatening paper decree.... Last year, politicians bent on high offices played on public fears to produce 'the toughest drug law in the country'. Now for the first time that toughness--or rather, that brutality--is being felt on Morningside Heights."

It will be a few months before the five Columbia students come to trial. Because few cases have yet been tried under New York's new laws, there haven't been many precedents by which the chances of a successful defense could be determined. Three Columbia students could spend 15 years in prison. Two Columbia students could spend the rest of their lives in prison. If that happens, all that Rockefeller will have accomplished through his new narcotics laws is the malicious destruction of human lives, not an improvement in the drug problem in the state of New York.

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