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COLUMN LEFT / MIKE GRAY

Drug War Is a Lost Cause--Like Prohibition

Using teenagers as informants is sometimes the only option that police have.

April 19, 1998|MIKE GRAY | Mike Gray's latest book, "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out," will be published by Random House in June

Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Kollman had been clean for several months--a struggle, but he was hanging in there. Then he ran into this babe in a red sports car who offered to buy him a fix. For a fragile teenager holding on by his fingernails, it was one temptation too many. He made the buy and 10 minutes later, he was back in the jaws of the dragon with heroin in his veins.

But what of the Dragon Lady? Who was this evil temptress? Turns out she was a cop--an undercover narcotics officer from the Plano, Texas, police department who needed an informant. Playing on the kid's vulnerability, she reintroduced him to his habit, and once he was rehooked, she was able to use him for a half dozen drug buys.

If you believe the end justifies the means, this little operation would have to be considered a resounding success--three dozen people busted for selling or holding heroin, including Kollman. But a lot of the folks in Plano are uneasy about this business of using kids as offensive weapons in the drug war. The boy's parents, for example--having just waged a titanic battle to free their son from addiction--are understandably dismayed that it was the police who turned him on again.

But for all their trauma, Jonathan Kollman's parents are lucky. Chad MacDonald Jr.'s mother probably would trade places with them in a second. When her son's badly damaged young frame was found in an alley south of downtown Los Angeles last month, it was revealed that he, too, had been lured into the service of the law. Earlier in the year, the Brea Police Department in Orange County had captured MacDonald with a half ounce of methamphetamine, and they apparently saw in him the makings of a useful snitch.

After MacDonald's arrest in January 1998 on charges of possession of methamphetamine, the Brea police offered Chad and his mother a deal, and the pressure must have been intense because they went for it in spite of the obvious danger. Rather than treat his addiction, the deal dropped this high school student unprepared into the boiling pot of cutthroats who populate the illegal drug trade. Since these guys are often facing 10 or 20 years if they're caught, they disdain informants--a fact they underscored by torturing the kid before killing him and then raping and shooting his girlfriend and leaving her for dead in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Undoubtedly this is an arrangement that everybody involved wishes they had to do over again, but the truth is, we're likely to see more of this kind of thing in the future, not less. Consider the problem from the cops' viewpoint. You have a bunch of high school kids dealing drugs to one another in private. How do you break into this closed circle? That's the intractable nexus of the war on drugs, the thing that has driven our ongoing assault on the Bill of Rights for more than 80 years. In a drug deal, there's no complaining witness.

Most other criminals--the rapist, the robber, the ax murderer--have somebody chasing them or have victims or survivors demanding justice. But when there's nobody to call the cops, the cops have little choice. To break up what is essentially a private transaction, they inevitably have to resort to some subterfuge that will trample the Constitution, whether it's turning your kid into a junkie or splintering your front door without bothering to knock or forcing you to the pavement because you happen to be a black man in an expensive car.

It is the nature of the drug war itself that creates this ethical quagmire, not the perversity of the police. Brea Chief William Lentini was simply trying his best to carry out the impossible task we've handed him.

Our hands are hardly clean on this issue. The latest polls show that 70% of the American people think the drug war is a failure--and that we should keep at it. As President Clinton has pointed out, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

Like a man who has set his hair on fire and is trying to put it out with a hammer, we will continue to pulverize our principles and devour our young until the drug war's violence and corruption finally reachs every nook and cranny of our lives. Only then will we face the fact, as we did with alcohol prohibition in 1933, that the problem is not what's in the bottle, but how we've chosen to deal with it.

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