A year ago I warned in these columns that a Senate subcommittee chaired by Senator Price Daniel had recommended for passage a new anti-narcotics bill which would set a new low in a field already characterized by ill-conceived legislatlon. Since this time the bill, known as the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, has become law. It increased the already severe mandatory penalties required by the Boggs law of 1951, and represents a further development of the punitive, prohibitlon type approach to the drug problem first established federally by rthe Harrison Act of 1914.
Both the 1951 and 1956 enactments, as well as the hearings and recommendations of the Congressional subcommittees which led to their passage, reflect conceptions of justice and penology which can only be adequately described as medieval and sadistic.
The 1956 act calls for the following penalties for illegal possession oi drugs: (1) first offense, two to ten years’ imprisonment and a fine not to exceed $20,000; (2) second offense, five to twenty years’ imprisonment and a fine up to $20,000; ( 4 ) third or subsequent offense, ten to forty years’ imprisonment plus a maximum fine of $20,000. For first and second selling offenses the penalties are the same as in (2) and (3); for the sale of heroin by a person over eighteen years of age to anyone under eighteen the penaIty is the same as ( 3 ) with the additional provision that the death penalty may be applied at the discretion of a jury.
The minimum penalties for all Offenses except (1) are mandatory; probation, suspension of sentence and parole are specifically forbidden. The elimination of parole means that persons convicted under the law will no longer be eligible for parole after serving a third of their time, but will have to serve at ieast two thirds. The death penalty is primarily a gesture, since very few cases of the kind to which it might apply are ever tried before a jury and because juries are in any case reluctant to impose the extreme penalty.
One of the basic injustices of the narcotic laws in general, and of the recent laws in particular, is that the penalties fall mainly upon the victims of the traffic—the, addicts—rather than upon the dope racketeers against whom they are designed. Assistant Attorney General Warren Olney III explained this to the Boggs subcommittee:
Probably, the most serious difficulty with the narcotic laws is the fact that they make no distinction between the violator who is a profiteering racketeer and the violator who in many respects is a victim of the drug itself, the addict. The same law is applicable to both and they are also subject to the same penalties. Unfortunately the addict and the petty pusher are much more easily apprehended than the major trafficker, who is the source of supply and is several echelons removed from the last seller who deals with the illicit consumer. The result is that the present rather severe penalties are more often applied to the relativeIy minor violator than to the “big shot” for whom they were designed.
The truth of this statement is borne out by the fact that even on the federal level, where there is a higher proportion of important peddling cases than in the state courts, over half of the defendants are addicts.
In Chicago, Senator Daniel and the state’s attorney for Cook County, John Gutknecht, discussed the prevalence of Negro defendants among those charged with violation of narcotic laws. It was agreed that Negro peddlers operated mainly in the lower and middle branches of the illicit traffic and that they obtained their supplies ultimately from white gangsters who scarcely ever appear in ‘the Chicago courts. Mr. Gutknecht sald: “The white race is responsible for the distribution of narcotics in America, and let’s not kid ourselves. The others are the victims.” The discussion then turned to ways and means of providing more severe punishment for the ‘‘victims’’!