My first inkling of this proposition occurred while watching Good Morning America about six months ago. Diane Sawyer was interviewing 60 year old twin women on the topic of how a "harder lifestyle" can contribute to visible signs of aging. One of the women had lived a puritan lifestyle while the other, who had a few more wrinkles, partied a bit too much. Both women, who appeared to be upper class and very articulate, joked about their lifestyle differences over the years. Finally, one of the sisters (the one that had aged a bit more than her sibling) admitted to having smoked marijuana frequently during her lifetime. What struck me as odd was that all three women laughed at the admission. That is, here were three apparently upstanding women joking about marijuana use on national television.
You wouldn't have seen that twenty years ago.
Now comes George W. and his possible use of cocaine over twenty-five years ago. The reaction? The most recent pole showed that 84% of the people believed that drug use under those circumstances should not disqualify him as a candidate for President of the United States. Understand what this means. The American people apparently believe in overwhelming numbers that the use of drugs at the felony level is irrelevant so long as it occurred "a long time ago". It is so irrelevant that it is not reason for disqualification for the most powerful office in the world.
Consider my position as DA. Right now, I have filing cabinets full of files which constitute criminal cases against twenty-something year olds for the illegal possession of drugs. Every single one of those individuals is eligible for prison. Not the county jail over on Rook Ramsey Boulevard, mind you. Prison. As in Huntsville.
I suppose that if I had a guarantee that each individual defendant would never use drugs again and turn out to be an upstanding citizen, like our Governor, there would be wide spread support for the dismissal of those cases. Isn't that right? Are 84% saying its no big deal so long as it doesn't become a lifetime problem?
Moreover, can you name one other felony besides drug use or possession that would be so readily ignored if it had been committed by a would-be President? What if it had been forgery? How about burglary? Aggravated assault? Tampering with governmental records?
Really. If George W. had stated "I have not committed forgery in the last 25 years" do you think the 84% public apathy would exist? No way.
So what's the ultimate conclusion? I'm not sure. I do know, however, that every successful criminal prosecution requires the jury to become angry about the defendant's conduct in order to convict. If they perceive the facts as "no big deal", even if it violates a criminal statute, a jury is much more likely to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt and return an acquittal.
If the 84% figure is any indication, such does not bear well for the future of drug prosecution in this country.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.