Students Seek to Avoid Prison in Ivy League Drug Case

by Nathan Harden

Two Columbia University students, recently in the news as part of a group of students arrested on drug charges, have petitioned for leniency under New York’s recently revised (and more forgiving) drug laws. Here’s some background:

They were students who juggled an elite education with criminal extracurriculars, dealing an array of drugs from Ivy League dorm rooms and frat houses, prosecutors say.

But beneath the surface of academic success, some of the Columbia University students charged in a campus drug takedown struggled with substance abuse, their lawyers say. Attorneys for two of the five students plan to ask a court to prescribe treatment instead of prison — one of the most high-profile tests so far of a recent overhaul of New York’s once-notoriously stringent drug laws.

The outcome will be watched closely by opponents and proponents of 2009 changes to mitigate what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Backers called the lesser punishments a more effective and humane approach to drug crime; critics said they gave drug peddlers a pass.

At Yale, marijuana had a presence on campus, and I even heard of some students who used cocaine. But alcohol was always the drug of choice. On the other hand, Columbia University has something of a reputation for hard-drug use. Maybe it has something to do with being in Manhattan, and having easier access to the hard stuff. These five students were doing quite a bit more than simply smoking an occasional joint:

Coles and fellow students Harrison David, Adam Klein, Jose Perez and Michael Wymbs were arrested in December, have pleaded not guilty and are due back in court in March. Authorities called the arrests one of the largest drug takedowns at a New York City college in recent memory, and the prestigious setting made the case a media magnet.

Each student made some of the 31 sales in which an undercover officer bought about $11,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and prescription stimulants over five months, authorities said. Drugs, paraphernalia and more than $6,600 in cash were found in the students’ rooms, according to the office of special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan.

As the story notes, a couple of the students have said that addiction motivated them to deal drugs. But the most intriguing defense of all came from the student who claimed that he was dealing drugs in order “to pay tuition”; all the while, he was carrying on a $70-a-day marijuana habit.

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