New York - Want a get-out-of-jail card? Just say you're addicted to pot
New York - The revamped Rockefeller drug laws have let hardened drug dealers escape jail by claiming they're marijuana addicts, the city's top drug prosecutor says.
The goal was to help addicts who sold drugs or committed petty crimes to support their habits, but Special Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said dealers with multiple convictions for non-violent offenses are taking advantage of the reforms.
A Bloods member with two felony drug convictions was charged last October with overseeing a cocaine operation in a Brooklyn housing project. Instead of prison he's in a drug treatment program for marijuana abuse, after years of denying he ever used drugs.
A couple arrested for major cocaine dealing was recorded in a phone call discussing smoking pot to buttress their claim of marijuana addiction.
"If they do wanna be dumb and do offer you a program, you urine need to be dirty," the man says to his wife in the call from Rikers Island. "What they don't realize that they revised, revised Rockefeller drug law, that's why therefore selling drugs is almost legal."
Brennan said her office fought treatment for people who were "not addicts, but businessmen drug dealers, major managers, gang members ...
"It's sending the wrong message, not only to the individual defendant who thinks he may be able to game the system, but to the community at large."
Drug law reform advocates say Brennan is using a few examples to make the program look bad.
"She's tooth-and-nail against the Rockefeller laws being changed," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance. "She is taking one case and blowing it up ...to affect thousands of other people who should get treatment instead of jail."
"Special Narcotics still measures success by the number of people they put in jail rather than effectiveness in reducing crime," said William Gibney of the Legal Aid Society.
Last year, the state repealed most of its mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses imposed in the 1970s under the tough Rockefeller laws.
That allowed the resentencing or release of some prisoners serving exceptionally long sentences, and expanding treatment as an alternative to incarceration.
Judicial diversion, as it is called, allows a judge to dismiss a case against a drug defendant as long as the offender pleads guilty and completes treatment.
Brennan said 217 defendants applied for judicial diversion since the law took effect Oct. 7.
Of those, 158 were referred to a judge, and her office objected to 90 of them. Twenty-seven were granted diversion anyway.
Almost half the people who asked for judicial diversion claimed to be marijuana abusers.
"They are selling cocaine and heroin, but say they are 'addicted' to marijuana," Brennan said.
Nestor Ferreiro, chief of the Bronx district attorney's narcotics bureau, said "some people are trying to take advantage of the law." But, he added, "the judges and the diversion staff are pretty good at catching it."
In Queens, 11 people sought diversion. Prosecutors objected successfully to eight of them, a spokeswoman said. The majority claimed to be pot addicts.
Police sources said the Bloods gang member in the Brooklyn case was arrested with 49 others in Operation Tidal Wave, a three-month probe launched after some gang-related shootings near the Coney Island Houses.
A cop involved in the investigation was shocked the man was allowed to go to treatment.
"He was a manager on the street," the officer said. "If you wanted to purchase narcotics you had to go through him."
Brennan, who said she wanted the man to get at least two years in jail, doesn't blame the judges, saying they are dealing with "a very vague statute."
Although the couple recorded in the phone call were ruled ineligible for diversion, she called the conversation "troubling."
"The assumption was all you do is smoke weed and get a program," she said. "It shows people on the street know how the law changed."