Cracking down on drugs


SHOULD ONE feel sorry for the person who, having gotten caught with a sizable load of dangerous drugs, draws a life sentence without parole? Isn't this cruel and unusual punishment? The Supreme Court recently answered the latter question by ruling such sentences constitutional.

In the case before the court, defendant Ronald A. Harmelin was found in possession of 672.5 grams of cocaine -- about 1 1/2 pounds -- and sentenced to life without parole under a Michigan law. The court rejected the argument that possession of large amounts of drugs is not on a par with the crimes of violence that usually rate life sentences.

Hardly anyone carrying a really large quantity of dangerous drugs such as cocaine is carrying it just for his or her own use. Those drugs are meant to be distributed, and distribution affects human beings in ways that acts of violence do. Drugs cause injury and death, and contribute to enormous emotional suffering among those who use them and those who know and love users. To judge from its ultimate physical and emotional impact, possessing drugs for sale truly can be called an act of violence.

(I)n a plurality opinion upholding the sentence, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said it was "false to the point of absurdity" to suggest that possessing enough cocaine to yield 32,500 to 65,000 doses was a "non-violent and victimless" crime.

Harmelin might not consciously have intended to harm anyone, but the fact remains that he could not separate himself legally and morally from the harmful consequences of his actions.

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