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From the Editor

Monday, June 28, 2004

Is the system cracked?

You may have read about the Coralville father whose daughter took his crack cocaine to school. Some show and tell day that was.

Uh-oh. There goes the bid for the PTA presidency. And presumably, a Kirkwood Elementary 10-year-old flunks out of show-and-tell.

Then again, when you invite kids to show and tell, you sometimes have to be careful what you ask for.

At age 5, I once conducted a demonstration of slingshot accuracy in the living room. For the family's 80-year-old minister. Using Mom's best lacy bra for the slingshot. I was grounded into my late 20s. (The sling worked great, though.) That story still gets passed around at the family reunions.

But hey, rocks of crack cocaine are a little bit of a different story. The little girl said she found it on the floor near her dad's bedroom, and told of numerous trips she went on with dad where he met people and exchanged money.

It took a state trooper chase to finally nab Frank Snead. They found drugs, scales, bags and other stuff, including counterfeit money.

According to a newspaper account, Snead is going to plead guilty. His lawyers says that if he does, he'll get off with a little halfway-house time on a deal.

Which begs the question - what in the world do you have to do to get your butt thrown in prison around here?

Apparently a crack business, drug possession, forgery, counterfeiting and child endangerment isn't it.

For decades, we've danced around the key question, and we're still tuning up this old fiddle:

Is a drug abuser a criminal, or a victim?

Eventually, to have an effective justice system, we're going to have to make up our minds.

If abusers are criminals, there should be prison time for such a drug operation, surely. Probation is no deterrent. How else will we get drugs off the streets unless we get the people who deal in them off the streets?

If abusers are victims, then it's foolish to waste all of our time and resources arresting them, booking them and sending them to trial only to see plea bargains cut for no prison time.

Kids do play into the equation as well. Sending a parent to prison for an extended period is likely to break up a family, and in many cases, may land kids in foster homes. In extreme cases, that may be better for them, but our system is geared for trying to fix the home at all costs.

In the Coralville case, the father shared an apartment with a 10-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son.

So how do we judge what is fair in our drug justice?

Some will tell you the drug war was lost a long time ago. They think we should just legalize it so we can make some money taxing the drugs, and let people use what they will.

Others try to qualify drug justice. They feel that use of marijuana and perhaps some other milder drugs should be decriminalized, and they make a case.

In this newspaper, we have in the past introduced you to some medicinal marijuana users, and I would argue that this avenue of legalized use is worth more investigation.

For cops, it all must be frustrating. It can take a lot of work and investigation to make a drug bust, going by every law and rule they are given to work by, and then see the suspect walk away on probation.

I'm not sure I can buy the argument that drug use - as opposed to drug sales - is a "victimless" crime, though many will tell you the user is hurting no one but themselves.

When the pusher is caught selling a bad batch of meth to some middle school kids, do you ever wonder what kept him in business so that he could make that sale?

Victimless? I don't think so.

There has to be some punishment - it should be reasonable, consistent and applied with every intention of finding help for the person to recover from addiction. But I do believe the law needs to be enforced - and not subject to "deals."

If nothing else, that time behind bars, with no chance to get their drugs, may be the only way to get some people to see that they can live without being high. Sadly, in other cases, they will pick up worse habits.

But what kind of message are we sending to kids if our drug justice is nothing more than lip-service and halfway houses?

It's a heavy price. It costs society a lot to keep people in jail on drug charges. But we can only wonder at the costs for wasted lifetimes if we don't try.

Can we wisely pair punishment with good, accessible treatment programs - and expect results? Not always, but unless someone has a better idea, it's the best chance we have.

I wish our Coralville father the best. I hope his lucky second chance, if it is in fact given to him, leads him in a better direction.

Others may have to earn their second chances with some time in the steel hotel, but they too, deserve our support and help if they come out willing to make an honest attempt.

There's no such thing as a victimless crime. Just ask the little girl whose world probably stopped on the day she pulled that funny-looking little rock out of her backpack at school last year.

It's clear who the real victims are - the kids deserve better.