Rejected for Jury Duty

Richard Riley Conarroe

A recent front-page headline in The New York Times reads, “Cocaine Prices Rise, and Police Efforts May Be Responsible.”

The story says that in major markets the price of cocaine has risen by as much as 40% in six months, indicating a reduction of supply, which in turn suggests that the war against drugs is finally taking hold.

What the story most assuredly does not point out is that this reduction in supply and the concomitant rise in price represent a major step backward. It means that drug lords and pushers can sap even more money from the soul of our society, and will be motivated to go to even greater violent tactics to protect and expend their turfs. It means that drug addicts will be motivated to go to even more desperate and violent methods to obtain the money they need to buy drugs at a 40% premium.

Who wins as a result of this “success” in the War on drugs? Only those in a position to demand even higher prices for illegal drugs they sell. Who loses? All of us who pay the cost of the drug war, and especially those of us whose property and lives are at greater risk because of the increased level of crime that will result from the increased price of cocaine.

The drug-war mentality has permeated our thinking. The hysteria of the drug war has bent and blinded society's mind no less than the illicit drugs we are fighting can bend and cloud the minds of users. Most Americans cannot see the drug-trafficking problem in any terms other than those of “good guys vs. bad guys.” We envision some dirty little pusher pressing crack into the hands of a schoolchild while a racketeer kingpin wearing a thousand-dollar suit and toting a semiautomatic weapon stands in the background, shooting his competitors and raking in millions.

I told him that I thought drugs should be legalized because that would cause most of the problems to go away. I said, “Drugs are much less damaging to our overall society than booze or tobacco. Either make drugs legal, or make alcohol and tobacco illegal one or the other. The government has no right to select which vices a citizen may have and which he may not.”

I pointed out that drinking alcohol is the third largest cause of death in this country, behind heart disease and cancer, yet it is perfectly legal for people over a certain age to drink.

“We tried making alcohol illegal back in the '20s,” I continued, “and all that accomplished was to create a precursor to the kind of international gang wars, crime, death and mayhem we have now with drugs being illegal. Fortunately the government wised up, repealed Prohibition, put the bootleggers like President Kennedy's Father out of business, and now turns the lemon into lemonade by making lots of tax revenue on booze.”

I stopped to see if the judge wanted to comment but he simply nodded and said, “Proceed.” Now I had the impression he was really listening to me.

“Tobacco is the other obvious example. Because of its pervasive use it is a far more destructive drug than cocaine and heroin. A thousand people a day die in this country from tobacco-related diseases. Yet the government not only makes money taxing this vice but also actually supports the tobacco industry with farm subsidies.”

I started to warm to my subject. I could see that everyone in the courtroom the attorneys, the defendant, the court reporter, the sheriffs was listening to what I said.

“Imagine what it would be like if possession and use of tobacco were as much a criminal offense as possession and use of cocaine. Suppose there were no legal source of tobacco. An illegal pack of cigarettes might have a street value of, let's say, $300 or more. Because there are so many tobacco addicts in comparison to so-called drug-addicts, this would produce a level of racketeering, of gang killings, of territorial wars, of muggings and robberies that would make our present drug-caused crime wave look like a birthday party.”

“So,” interjected the judge, “you think drugs should be legalized and make available to every school kid your own grandchildren included.”

“No, sir, that is not what I believe,” I replied. “I believe drugs should be legalized and controlled at least as well as the sale of alcohol is controlled, and preferably better. No sale to people under a certain age, and lots of education and publicity on the reasons for staying away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco completely. If we took even part of the billions being spent to buy drugs, and wasted in the futile attempt to prevent the illegal sale of drugs, and put that money into education, we could have something really positive to show for it.”

“And you think that would make the problem go away?”

“No, I don't think the problem would go away, any more than any other human frailty or vice is going to go away. But by legalizing drugs you take all the profit out of it. There would be no more reason for pushers to try to turn kids into addicts. There would be no more reason for our military to invade Panama, for example, spending a billion dollars and killing hundreds of people in order to capture a Noriega. There would be no more reason for addicts to mug old people or break into our houses to get money for a quick fix, when they could buy the fix as cheaply as pack a of cigarettes or a bottle of wine. Take away their reason for ruining our lives and our children's lives.”

Eventually I stopped. I was amazed that the judge had let me go on for so long. Clearly he was listening to me. He may even agreed with me. He sat there for a minute looking at me, his elbows on the bench, his hands thoughtfully on his chin. The courtroom was still.

Finally the judge spoke.

“Does all this mean that you feel you could not make an objective judgment as a member of this jury in defending our present drug laws?”

“I have to say Your Honour, that I could not.”

“You are dismissed. Thank you for your thoughts,” he concluded. I think he meant it.

My next day as a potential juror was pretty much a repeat of the first: A full day of waiting in the courthouse. A late- afternoon call. Another black defendant in an all-white courtroom. The charge: possession of cocaine. Again I raised my hand and was ushered with others into a waiting room. This time there was up to an hour's wait as each potential juror was queried. The judge was obviously interviewing each one thoroughly. But when my turn came, this time it was over in a flash.

I began, “I think the drug laws are counterproductive and should be “

“Out!” shouted the judge in an angry voice, pointing to the door.

Thus my jury duty ended and my awareness of the real causes and solutions of our drug problem had taken shape.

Richard Riley Conarroe
Richard Riley Conarroe is a former editor and public relations consultant. He serves as executive director of Letters for Peace, Inc., in Holmes Beach, Florida, U.S.A.



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