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Alaska's harsh, unfair drug laws drain public finances, damage lives

Marcelle McDannel
More than 30 years ago, a state law was passed requiring twice-yearly meetings of a group to review Alaska's drug laws. But the Controlled Substances Advisory Committee has never once met. istockphoto

The state of Alaska wants to put Laura Rodgers (not her real name) in jail. According to the charging document filed by a prosecutor, Laura mailed a package to her husband, who was out working in the Bush. Among other items, the package held two methadone pills. Laura has no criminal history. Because this is her first offense, she is facing a jail term of five to eight years.

This may seem excessive, ridiculous even, but it is how the drug laws of this state operate. Mailing -- even handing -- someone a pill is considered a “delivery,” a definition so broad it includes both a wife mailing her husband a methadone pill and a high-level dealer selling 10 kilos of heroin to his distributors. Methadone, because it is a derivative of opium, is a schedule I controlled substance, the same class as heroin. Our laws punish the delivery of any amount of schedule I narcotic as a class A felony offense, punishable by a jail term of five to eight years for a first offender. And it’s not just the delivery of small amounts of drugs that exacts severe punishment. The mere possession of any narcotic, except marijuana, is a felony offense, even in microscopic amounts.

For years, the government and media have fed us frightening images of gang-banger crackheads and toothless meth addicts. These images have been successful at sucking away public sympathy for drug offenders. But as anyone who has practiced criminal law in Alaska -- either defense or prosecution -- can attest, it’s Alaska’s favorite legal drug that fuels most of the violence. Research has found that violent crime in Alaska is tied far more closely with alcohol use than with drugs. Alcohol is involved in 30 percent of homicides, 30 percent of aggravated assaults, and 22.5 percent of sexual assaults versus 15.8 percent, 5.1 percent, and 2.4 percent for drugs, respectively.

Locking up everyone with a pill in their pocket is not an effective way to curb violent crime, and it also happens to be very expensive. This is why some of the most conservative states in our union have been leading the way in reducing penalties for drug offenders and emphasizing alternatives to prison: South Carolina, Louisiana, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky. Even Texas, our smaller, swaggering sister to the south, passed legislation in 2007 that reinvested $241 million from averted prison growth to expand substance abuse treatment and transitional re-entry programs.

Why has execution-happy Texas outpaced Alaska in re-examining its treatment of drug offenders? Here at home, it turns out that the Department of Law, the state agency that oversees all local district attorneys' offices and prosecutors, isn’t above a little law-breaking itself. And its flouting of the law has not only affected folks like Laura Rodgers but may have resulted in far greater public costs than anything she ever contemplated. 

When the Alaska Legislature overhauled our drug laws in 1982, it also required the Department of Law to convene a Controlled Substances Advisory Committee twice every year. The advisory committee is required by statute to contain a breadth of experience, including law enforcement, pharmacy, medicine and psychiatry. The scope of its charge is just as broad: making recommendations to the governor about how the state should classify controlled substances, evaluating the effectiveness of treatment and counseling programs for addicts, recommending programs to the court system as alternatives to prosecution and imprisonment, reviewing appropriations for agencies that provide treatment and counseling for addicts, and reviewing the practices of law enforcement and the Department of Law. In essence, the committee was designed to provide a check on the drug laws so they wouldn’t evolve into the overly punitive scheme we have today.

According to the statute, which makes convening the Controlled Substance Advisory Committee mandatory, it should have met 62 times over the last 31 years. How many times has the department followed this law?

Never. Not once.

If convening this committee seems a mere formality of no real consequence, consider the current composition of Alaska’s prison population. In the absence of any meaningful review of our drug laws, Alaska has one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the country. It’s not from imprisoning violent offenders. According to the Alaska Department of Corrections, in 2002, 42 percent of inmates were nonviolent offenders. As of 2010, that number is now 64 percent, and it’s growing. Annual reports by the Alaska Court System show that while the total number of felonies filed grew by 10.9 percent between 2009 and 2011, the number of felonies for drug possession grew at more than three times that rate.

Our state spends millions to lock up all of these nonviolent offenders. The recently-completed Goose Creek facility cost $250 million to build. It was sold to the Legislature as the facility that could house the inmates we’ve been sending to private jails in Colorado and Arizona because we ran out of bed space. At our current rate of prison population growth, the Department of Corrections estimates that all beds will again be full by 2016.

If the Department of Law has its way, Laura Rodgers will be filling one of those beds. It will cost the state $49,275 per year to house her.  Even if Laura is only imprisoned for five years, the low end of her sentencing range, the state will pay more than $246,375 to punish her for mailing those pills to her husband. This begs the question: Which of these law-breakers is inflicting the greater public harm?

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.