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Hostage Mom Exposes Drug War Double Standard

The woman who traded meth for freedom is an example of how our drug policy has failed.
 
 
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Last March, Atlanta hostage Ashley Smith got a rousing cheer from public officials, law enforcement, and much of the media for cajoling accused rampage shooter Brian Nichols to give himself up. Smith deserved the praise. It took courage, compassion, and good sense to do what she did. But it also took something else, drugs. In her recently released tell all book, Unlikely Angel , Smith admits that she got Nichols to give up by plying him from her stash of Methamphetamine. Meth is deadly, destructive, and, of course, patently illegal.

A month before Smith publicly announced she's a former drug user at the launch of her national book promo tour; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called Meth a scourge that devastates families and communities. Gonzales, Bush drug czar, John Walters, and Mike Leavitt, Health and Human Services Secretary met in Nashville, Tennessee in August. They announced that the feds would pour more resources into drug prevention and treatment, but they also promised a big crack down on Meth sale and use.

Gonzales claimed that the Justice Department had more than quadrupled the number of cases filed during the past decade. The DEA has aggressively targeted Meth producers and traffickers, resulting in the initiation of nearly 3000 criminal cases related to Meth production, distribution, or diversion of ingredient chemicals in 2004.

But Smith didn't have to worry about being one those prosecuted. Police didn't catch her with the dope in her apartment and prosecutors quickly made it clear that they wouldn't file charges. And they shouldn't. Smith is a victim, and needs counseling and treatment, not jail. Smith, however, is white, middle class, and a former housewife, and she would likely get the help she needed anyway without risk of a prison sentence. Yet Smith, far more than her captor Nichols, fit the profile of a Meth user, as well as the profile of the majority of America's drug users. Surveys have repeatedly shown that middle-income young whites use drugs more frequently than blacks or Latinos.

The drug pass that Smith got, and thousands of low level, war mostly, poor, and desperate small time black drug offenders don't get, once again exposed the glaring racial hypocrisy and double standard in America's drug war. That double standard has been enshrined in the popular culture. The entertainment magazines, scandal tabloids, and TV talk shows are crammed with legions of articles, and news features on and interviews with high-profile white stars, starlets, and athletes who openly brag or cry about their drug escapades. They are not vilified or stereotyped. They are the object of public pity for their heroic battles against addiction. Hollywood celebrities such as Robert Downey, Jr., and conservative talk show mouthpiece, Rush Limbaugh continued their careers even after they had been convicted or accused of drug offenses.

Newly turned celebrity Smith got the same royal treatment. An exuberant Oprah shouted to her audience, "Jesus loves you girl, during Smith's appearance on her TV show as part of her national book tour. She was publicly praised for her heroic fight against drug addiction. While the lop-sided Meth use by middle-income whites, such as Smith, ignites no public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions, and tough prison sentences, the consequences to society are just as disastrous as heroin or crack cocaine use.

Meth manufacture and use is blamed for automobile accidents; explosions and fires environmental contamination; increased criminal activity, including domestic violence; emergency room and other medical costs; spread of infectious disease, including HIV, AIDS and hepatitis; and lost worker productivity.

The penalties for use and sale are every bit as severe as crack cocaine sale and use. The basic mandatory minimum sentences under federal law are 5 to 10 years in prison. Lawmakers even talk of dropping the amount of Meth that an individual caught with can be prosecuted for. It's not clear just how much Meth Smith had in her illegal stash, but presumably if police found even a small amount she could have been prosecuted.

If whites such as Smith, though, were jailed and prosecuted for their criminal drug use, it would radically change the complexion of the nearly two million prisoners that now jam America's jails and prisons. At present, nearly half of them are black. The overwhelming majority of them are there for petty crimes, and drug offenses.

The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 mandated seizures of chemicals, the destruction of Meth labs, and longer prison sentences. That was supposed to be a major step toward preventing Meth from becoming the next crisis in drug abuse. A decade later, Smith is glaring proof that the act didn't do much to stop that from happening. Smith was declared a hero for getting Nichols to surrender. She is not a hero for using or kicking her Meth habit. If the public and law enforcement praised her for her action, thousands of others who aren't heroes but are drug addicted should get help, not jail. After all, Jesus loves them too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).