When I read about the five Columbia students busted for selling drugs this week on Fraternity Row, my mood sank. About two decades ago, I was in a similar situation. A sophomore at Columbia College, I was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to sell: an offense that then carried a 15 to life mandatory minimum sentence under New York’s tough Rockefeller laws. Had I been convicted and sent to prison, I probably would never have become the health journalist and author I am today.
I was addicted to cocaine and heroin in my early 20′s, an extremely unhealthy behavior that developed rapidly after I left home and moved into my freshman dorm at Columbia. I’d started using drugs in high school and soon found that they eased my social awkwardness. At college, I found that having access to drugs made it much easier for a middle class girl to feel like I had something to bring to the party with my far wealthier classmates. The students arrested this week appear to have faced the same class chasm. (More on Time.com: Should an Overdose Antidote Be Made More Accessible?)
Research now shows that differences in social status have profound physiological effects: those lower in any hierarchy are more vulnerable to depression, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, addictions, some cancers and many other disorders. And it’s not just that people of lower status and power engage in unhealthy behaviors that lead to such health problems: similar differences in disease risk are found even in baboons, who cannot binge on alcohol, other drugs or junk food in an attempt to self-medicate status distress.
Of course, this doesn’t justify engaging in criminal behavior to escape — but if we want to actually reduce drug-related problems, we need to understand their roots and devise policies that address them effectively. One thing that certainly doesn’t work is incarceration and discriminatory enforcement.
When I was arrested, I was especially lucky that my case never got any publicity. I was released on bail and very slowly, the case made its way through the system. At first, fearing that all was lost, I escalated my drug use — by then unable to see another way to cope with the enormous stress of facing such a lengthy prison term. (More on Time.com: Does Suffering From Withdrawal Really Mean You’re Addicted?)
Fortunately, however, when I got down to 80 pounds and found myself begging a man for heroin, I decided to seek help. Returning to court after seven days in detox, a month in rehab and three months in a halfway house, I was a different person. No longer looking terminally ill, no longer terrifyingly thin, I had life in my eyes and the judge saw that I had changed. She said she’d try to keep me out of prison if I stayed clean. Although it took six years, the case was eventually dismissed in the interest of justice.
During those years, I went to court every few months. Most of the time, I was the only white defendant in the room. I watched as dozens of black men were sentenced to years, even decades in prison. Though I knew that this particular judge had also dismissed cases against African Americans and Latinos who had similarly kicked addictions, it was also clear that my educational achievement and skin color made a difference. Around 90% of those sentenced under the Rockefeller laws were black and Latino, despite the fact that they make up less than one third of New York’s population and the fact that more white people use and sell drugs. (More on TIME.com: A Brief History of the Rockefeller Drug Laws)
The students arrested this time face the glare of publicity and calls for severe sentences to show that they are not receiving special treatment. But making an example of them would be a mistake.
I have thrived because I had access to treatment, a supportive family and a good education. Prison interferes with all of that: although the Rockefeller laws have been reformed to allow access to treatment for most first offenders, some low-level dealers still face mandatory minimums of eight to 20 years and failing at treatment (which often happens the first time) can still result in lengthy incarceration. (More on Time.com: ‘i-Dosing’: Can You Download a Drug High?)
Addiction must be treated as the health problem that it is — and we also need to take into account sheer youthful stupidity and impulsiveness. Before the mid-20′s, the brain’s frontal cortex — the area that allows long-term planning, impulse control and consideration of consequences — is not fully developed. Though this does not mean that young people cannot make good decisions or be responsible, the reality is that good judgment is typically developed through the experience of making bad decisions.
Like me, those five Columbia students made some really stupid choices. They did so, apparently, in the face of economic disparities: some claimed to be using the proceeds to pay for their tuition; one is known to have received a need-based scholarship. (More on TIME.com: How We Get Addicted)
We can send them and others to prison at a cost to New York state taxpayers of $55,670 per year — more than Columbia’s tuition costs. This will make them less employable and therefore less likely to recover from any addictions they may have, while doing nothing to reduce the supply of drugs.
Or, we can come up with better ways to deal with the fact that human beings will always seek to alter their consciousness, especially when young and faced with a distressingly unequal society.