How I got busted for coke and walked free

I strongly support the decriminalization — and, ultimately, the legalization — of almost every illegal drug. I hold this position for many reasons, including the obvious futility of the War on Drugs and the devastating toll drug prohibition has taken on tens of millions of families in the United States and Mexico.

But one of the biggest reasons is entirely personal: I have benefited from the de facto decriminalization of cocaine enjoyed by privileged white people.

It was the night before classes began for my first sophomore semester at Ithaca College. The year was 1990, and I was 19 years old. My dorm-mate and I were at a big party off campus, drinking heavily. This dorm-mate, whom I’ll call John, asked me several times during the party whether I wanted to chip in and buy some coke with him. I declined every time.

I’d tried coke the year before and didn’t really like it, mainly because I didn’t really need it to be happy, energetic or sociable, and because I didn’t like the way the drug made its users selfish and secretive and anxious for more. I much preferred marijuana, which was enjoyed openly and communally at parties like the one John and I were at.

When we got back to our dorm, John revealed that he’d scored the blow anyway, and at that point in the night (early morning, really) I was too wasted to object. We snorted a few lines and then heard a knock on the door. Before we could answer, the locked door opened and in walked two Ithaca city cops.

They took John and me down to the station and put us in separate rooms. They told me they’d seized just enough powder to put me in prison for something like 16 years. They wanted to know who we’d bought the coke from, and implied that I could avoid prison if I told them. But I didn’t know — John hadn’t told me. I realized that if he gave them a name, any name, they’d let us go. Furthermore, even if John named the actual seller, that person would be investigated, but not necessarily arrested based on John’s accusation, which they could not prove. When they finally allowed John and me to confer, I told him this, he gave them a name, and we walked free.

Neither of us even went to court. We were kicked out of the dorms (which was actually a gift, since we wanted to live off campus anyway) and had to do 40 hours of community service, which for me involved playing pool with inner-city kids at a rec center and digging a drainage ditch at a nature preserve. The hardest part was telling my parents. They were understandably upset, but recognized I didn’t have a drug problem and continued to support my education, which continued uninterrupted.

If I’d been one of the poor black kids at the rec center, I have no doubt the outcome would have been different. The clear pattern of racial and economic discrimination in drug-law enforcement is yet another reason the laws must change.

The Maine Legislature is changing state drug laws — for the worse. Last month, a legislative committee voted 8-4 to let prosecutors bring felony charges against anyone in possession of heroin, fentanyl (a pharmaceutical opiate), methamphetamine, or more than 14 grams of cocaine (about the same amount John and I had).

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat from Brunswick, was one of the lone voices of dissent against deluded drug warriors like Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, who thinks the threat of serious prison time will somehow magically become an effective deterrent or inducement to seek treatment after decades of drug policy that have proven otherwise.

Gerzofsky spoke of how such felony convictions are capable of “permanently destroying a life of a person that just might be out for a weekend pleasure. … I don’t want to treat people differently for the rest of their life because of a mistake they made, especially when they were young,” he said, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Gerzofsky could have been talking about me. A felony conviction and prison sentence would have derailed my adult life before it had really begun — no college degree, severely limited job prospects, etc. And for what, because I got drunk and blew a few lines? Is that Janet Mills’ idea of justice? I wasn’t thinking about whether I was committing a misdemeanor or a felony that night, because I wasn’t thinking, period.

The crooked drug-enforcement regime worked in my favor because I was a white kid enrolled in a private college. There are prisons packed with people across this country who didn’t catch the break I got because they aren’t as pale and privileged. I’m telling my story for them.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.