Levon Dumont, a free-spirited Santa Cruz teen-ager whose principal passion was the Grateful Dead, was on his way to a concert on Sept. 14, 1989, when he was stopped by an undercover agent at the Milwaukee airport.
Dumont's bag was searched, and agents found about three grams of LSD, an illegal hallucinogen. Today, Dumont is serving a 15-year, 8-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Ore.
Five years are for the three grams of LSD; the rest, more than a decade, is for the 440 grams of paper on which the drug was carried.
"I could have understood five years," said Connie Dumont, Levon's mother, a Santa Cruz real estate agent. "But 15 years? They took the best part of his life away because of this absurd decision to weigh the paper."
Levon Dumont could not agree more. "It has a daily, gut-wrenching effect," he said of the decision. "The time is unfathomable."
Cases like Dumont's are cropping up regularly in federal courts across the United States. And as LSD arrests soar, hundreds of offenders are forfeiting decades of their lives to a vaguely worded sentencing law that determines how the drug is weighed and how long dealers serve in prison.
Despite withering criticism of that law--the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986--and deep uncertainty about what Congress intended when it approved it, the U.S. Supreme Court voted last year to let it stand, a decision that allowed the government to include the weight of paper or other so-called LSD "carriers" when determining prison sentences. The consequences of that ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, "are so bizarre that I cannot believe they were intended by Congress."
Other critics also have assailed the law, but Congress, whose members are wary of taking any action that could ease prison sentences for drug dealers, has done nothing. Drug enforcement officers say no action is needed.
"I'm just not troubled by this at all," said Robert C. Bonner, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "There are some pretty severe penalties for trafficking in LSD, but I think that's right. This is a very dangerous drug. It once was referred to as do-it-yourself brain surgery."
The 1986 law at the center of this LSD debate was one of a slew of statutes enacted by Congress to set mandatory minimum prison sentences for crimes involving drugs. There is no parole in federal prison, so criminals serve all but a fraction of their assigned time.
The introduction of mandatory minimums and sentencing ranges were intended to deter drug crimes and to eliminate the possibility that criminals could appeal to lenient judges. Although those innovations are praised by drug enforcement advocates, they have come under fire from civil libertarians, lawyers and judges, among others.
"It's a dehumanizing aspect of the justice system," said U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. "We're dealing with numbers instead of people."
And even among those who support the mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, many concede that LSD cases pose a unique problem because of the way the law directs that drugs be weighed.
Under the sentencing rules, prison time for drug felons is based on the weight of the "mixture or substance containing a detectable amount" of most illegal drugs. The more that mixture weighs, the longer the prison term.
In cocaine or heroin cases, using the full weight of the mixture keeps dealers from escaping long prison sentences by diluting their drugs with cutting agents. That is part of what the federal government calls the "market approach" to fighting drug crimes.
In LSD cases, however, that approach produces a different result. LSD is sprayed on paper--or sometimes dropped into sugar cubes or orange juice or gelatin--in order to be consumed. Those so-called "carriers" do not dilute the drug or boost the dealer's profits.
Yet under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the federal sentencing laws, the paper or sugar cubes are considered part of the mixture containing LSD. As a result, judges must include the weight of those substances when determining how long to imprison an LSD offender.
The results can be startling.
Take the case of Stanley Marshall, a soft-spoken young man from El Paso, Tex., who was arrested June 22, 1988. He was charged with leading a conspiracy to distribute LSD. The total amount of the drug seized from him amounted to less than a gram. It was impregnated on about 113 grams of paper, however, so Marshall was charged with conspiracy to distribute 113.3 grams of LSD.
Had he been sentenced based on the amount of pure LSD he distributed, Marshall would have spent about three years in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years. Marshall was 30 when he was arrested. If all goes well and he gets the maximum number of days off for good behavior, he will be 47 when he goes free.