On Tuesday five students were arrested for allegedly selling drugs at Columbia University. In a press release distributed by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, headed by Bridgette Brennan, the bust was dubbed "Operation Ivy League." It was described as the culmination of a five-month police sting where they planted a baby-faced looking undercover cop to purchase drugs from the students.
This bust immediately brought back memories to me of a similar drug bust in 2004 involving kids in Berkshire County in Massachusetts. At that time another baby face detective, employed by the Drug Task Force, was assigned the duty of going undercover to buy drugs from kids who hung out in a parking lot. Merchants had complained to police about the kids. For months the undercover cop hung out with the kids, even allegedly drinking with them, while purchasing drugs. The undercover cop even talked about how he just lost his girlfriend to get the kids to feel sorry for him. This resulted in the arrest of 19 kids. One of them, 18-year-old Mitchell Lawrence, received two years for the sale of one joint. Mitchell was set to graduate from high school that spring. Instead, he watched his fellow classmates graduate from his prison cell.
So let me get this straight--the baby-face detective went to Columbia University and into the student dorms and made 31 buys over a five-month period that got a small amount of assorted drugs, including pot and a handful of pills. Two of the students claim that they sold the drugs to pay for their tuition. Another student, Christopher Coles, told the NY Daily News that the cops are exaggerating. And why wouldn't they? They always do.
I remember when I got arrested for a drug sale back in 1985. One Westchester newspaper headline screamed "Biggest Bust in Mt. Vernon History." This was used by the prosecutor to try and blow up my case and convince the judge I was a kingpin. But I wasn't. I was a small fry who made a mistake, and because of the draconian nature of the drug laws, I was sentenced to 15 years to life for a first time non-violent sale of four ounces of cocaine. My part of the take was $500 for delivering the envelope of coke to undercover cops in a sting operation. My life was ruined; I lost my family and everything I had in life.
While the "Ivy League" bust is generating a wave of press and Bridgette Brennan is loving her 15 minutes of fame on national TV, the reality is that these busts are all hype and PR and will do nothing to stop drug use on our campuses or in the city at large.
So I ask Brennan to remember any youthful discretion she might have made when she was young. The five students arrested have their entire lives in front of them. Please don't let one youthful mistake ruin their lives forever. After all, we are talking about Columbia students, not Colombia kingpins.
Anthony Papa is the author of 15 to Life and the Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.