Sunday, May 28, 2006

West Virginia experiencing drug epidemic, says Pittsburgh Post Gazette

On May 21, 2006, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette had a long story on the wave of illegal drug trafficking now plaguing West Virginia.

West Virginia is fighting a desperate drug war on every front.

Crack dealers are flooding the state from all sides, especially from Columbus and Detroit, where many people trace their roots to Appalachia, but also from Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington and other cities.

Homegrown cocaine rings have killed federal informants. Methamphetamine labs dot the backwoods. An epidemic of prescription pill abuse rages in the impoverished southern coalfields, where a podiatrist was recently accused of doling out prescriptions for cash.

My LTE responding to the story was published today:

Sentencing law has led to the wasting of DEA resources

Why might the drug problem -- especially crack cocaine -- be exploding in West Virginia ("Desperate Drug War Fought All Over W.Va.," May 21)?

One reason is that the federal government has been wasting its resources. Congress sent the wrong signal in 1986 when it created mandatory minimum sentence triggers of 5, 50, 500 and 5,000 grams of crack and cocaine. I helped write that law as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, and we goofed, big time.

In global or national terms, these are very small quantities. 5,000 grams -- 12 pounds -- fits in a briefcase or lunch box. Even worth $100,000, in drug dealing terms, this is not much. Due to those laws, too often the Drug Enforcement Administration focuses on local drug rings that local police can investigate.

The DEA does not focus on the international drug traffickers who send cargo containers of cocaine to the United States. The DEA will give you anecdotes of its high-level cases, but more than two-thirds of federal crack cases have involved an average of 52 grams of cocaine, a candy bar's weight. Only 7 percent of federal cocaine cases involve high-level traffickers. As a result the price of cocaine has gone down and the purity at retail has increased.

Congress needs to direct the DEA and the Justice Department to do their jobs -- fighting the highest-level traffickers.

Of course, it feels good to help every "Barney Fife" sheriff's office, and West Virginia is a poor state. But if the DEA had been doing its job, then why, 20 years after President Reagan declared war on drugs, after spending almost a half trillion dollars and quadrupling the number of federal drug prisoners, is West Virginia now being flooded with drugs?

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
Silver Spring, Md

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