Supporters of the drug war often claim that we need to wage this unwinnable war to "protect" young people. 60 Minutes ran an explosive piece last night showing one of the many ways that the war on drugs actually endangers young people: the sickening use of young students as confidential informants.
Informants work for law enforcement, often secretly, to entrap people on drug charges or to testify in exchange for cash or a reduction of their punishment.
60 Minutes shows us young people who were busted for small amounts of marijuana or Ecstasy who were threatened with years in prison unless they worked as confidential informants. Tragically, a number of informants end up getting put in life-threatening situations or are pressured into lying at the expense of innocent people to save their own skin.
Research indicates that up to 80 percent of all drug cases in the U.S. may be based on information from informants, and 60 Minutes estimated that 100,000 people are currently working as confidential informants. This has an especially damaging effect in communities of color, which are already struggling with over-policing and vastly disproportionate rates of drug enforcement.
The piece starts with Andrew Sadek, a college student who was caught selling $80 worth of marijuana. Chief Jason Weber, head of a four-county drug task force in eastern North Dakota and Minnesota, warns Andrew that he is facing up to 40 years in jail unless he wants to "help himself" and work as an informant. Andrew is forced to set up and buy drugs from three other people. Before he is able to finish his assignments, he is found in a river with a bullet through his head.
We then learn about Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old Florida State graduate from Tallahassee who also worked as an informant after she was busted with marijuana and Ecstasy. Hoffman was sent alone on a "buy and bust" and was given $13,000 to buy Ecstasy, cocaine and a gun. The men shot Hoffman five times, stole her car and credit card, and dumped her body into a ditch.
My friend and colleague, Anthony Papa, was sentenced to 15-years-to-life after a bowling buddy convinced him to drop off an envelope of cocaine in exchange for $500. The bowling buddy had been busted for drugs and the police said he was facing a long mandatory minimum drug sentence unless he could help them bust more people. The more people he helped them set up, the less prison time he would get. So he ruined his friend Papa's life (and many others) by setting him up in a drug sting.
There are so many sick aspects of the failed drug war, but law enforcement forcing people with a drug arrest to choose between a draconian prison sentence or becoming an informant is one of the most nauseating.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance blog: http://www.drugpolicy.org/