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War on Drugs Drags On and On and On . . .

America has overdosed on news about drugs.

Unfortunately, drug stories need a real twist to make the news these days. They’ve become like drive-bys and other murders, ignored by the media unless they are especially violent or tragic or have what we in the press call “a hook.”

Mention a drug case, and editors hold it up against the standard, the 1989 bust of 21.4 tons of cocaine in a Sylmar warehouse. That was a statistical marvel for our business, which is a sucker for stats. The authorities figured the cocaine had a street value of $6.9 billion. There was enough cocaine, they said, for 1.38 billion doses, about five doses for every person in the United States.

No case has managed to beat those numbers. As a result, the “War on Drugs” has slipped to the bottom of the newscasts and to the portion of newspapers known as “briefs.”

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Even so, an item on the City News Service schedule of events for Monday caught my attention.

Nine men and a woman were to be arraigned in federal court on charges of possessing and selling more than 650 pounds of cocaine, with a wholesale value of about $6.5 million.

While the case wasn’t Sylmar, it was still a lot of poison being spread around.

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The people accused of doing the spreading weren’t little street peddlers around MacArthur Park or South Figueroa Street. They were, the government said, international entrepreneurs who smuggled in cocaine from Colombia, stored it here in the Southland and then sent it to New York, Cincinnati, Houston, Chicago and New Orleans, where it was sniffed in expensive homes and smoked in filthy crack houses.

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But when I went over to the federal courthouse in the Civic Center to check out the proceedings, I couldn’t see any other reporters. Other journalists may have been in the crowded courtroom, but there were none of the cameras that herald what the media considers big news.

I found a seat at the rear of the small courtroom, which was crowded with men and a few women, all wearing the blue shirts issued them when they were booked into federal prison.

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The free sit with the imprisoned in this democratic courtroom. A few defendants were in the row in front of me, including the woman snagged in the big drug bust. U.S. marshals patrolled the aisle in case any of the accused tried to bolt or attack their non-prisoner neighbors.

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A criminal defense attorney I knew was standing nearby. He represented one of the defendants. It was, he said, a microcosm of a major drug bust, rich with international connections, huge amounts of money, flashy cars and violence.

The 18-page indictment told how agents grabbed $3.98 million from one of the accused dealer’s several houses and from two bank accounts. If the defendants are convicted, the funds will be used to finance other government drug prosecutions, as will the proceeds of the sale of their motor vehicle and boat fleet.

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The accused lived in style, the government said, with six cars, including three Mercedes and a Porsche, four vans and two power boats.

The suspects were violent--and tough. Fearing betrayal and theft, two of them shot a colleague 12 times, the indictment charged. By some miracle, he survived. While he recovered, officials said, they plotted to kill him again, an attempt foiled by their arrest.

The gang looked ordinary--far less fearsome than a Raiders football crowd--when they were summoned to the bench to enter their pleas. They were so numerous and the courtroom so small that they filled the space in front of the judge. Some had to stand in the aisle.

Watching the courtroom, so crowded with accused dealers, I thought about how drugs have come to occupy much law enforcement, court and prison time.

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Most of the 10 people I saw were, authorities said, top and middle management in the drug business. But below them was a large army of faceless grunts, addicts peddling the product in crack houses, middle-class neighborhood bars, Sunset Boulevard clubs and all the other places along the cocaine trail.

Together, bosses and grunts are wreaking terrible damage to society in general and to the criminal justice system in particular.

U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella said the U.S. government prosecutes only the big shots, CEOs and their management crew.

Once convicted, those guilty are kept in prison longer than in the past as a result of tougher federal sentences. That means an increased percentage of federal prison space is occupied by drug-related convicts, Manella said. Thus the federal system is becoming more and more clogged.

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The others, the faceless grunts, are clogging the state Superior and Municipal courts, where cases are ground out and dispatched like sausage from a sausage factory.

So overwhelming is the state court drug caseload, said Assistant Los Angeles Public Defender Robert E. Kalunian, that even law enforcement officers are beginning to “finally realize you can’t win the war on drugs. It’s like Vietnam. It’s a bottomless pit.”

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Some want to increase penalties even more. But doing that will pack the courts and jails with so many drug cases that there won’t be enough room for violent criminals deserving of being locked up, with the key thrown away.

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Others favor legalization of drugs. But if that happened, drug companies would come up with a symbol, a “Joe Coke,” to market the stuff to 14-year-olds.

Nobody has an answer, including us in the media. We cover the situation, often in depth. But we do it in an episodic manner. As a result, the public isn’t really aware of the horror, unless drugs have damaged or destroyed their lives or those of family and friends.

The “War on Drugs” has become routine, dragging on year after year like some ancient European conflict. How sad that something as evil as drugs has become so commonplace.


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