By Alan Bean
A routine drug bust in Fort Worth, Texas has sparked a firestorm of media interest.
Seventeen people have been arrested, almost all of them charged with selling small amounts of marijuana to an undercover agent.
Fifteen of the defendants are students at Texas Christian University and four are football players. Without the sports connection, no one would give much attention to a routine drug roundup, but in Fort Worth the Horned Frogs are the biggest thing going.
Reading through the half-dozen stories in this morning’s Star-Telegram, I couldn’t help thinking about the big Tulia drug bust in 1999. But there is a difference. Media response to the Tulia bust was universally positive. Seldom was heard a discouraging word . . . until Friends of Justice got involved.
But the local paper’s coverage of the big TCU bust ranges from cautious praise for the school’s proactive stance against the drug scourge to deep skepticism.
Texas has changed a lot since 1999. The wisdom of the war on drugs is no longer assumed.
The title of Bud Kennedy’s scathing column speaks for itself: “Hey, TCU, why the heavy-handed approach to young people being dumb?”
So far, most cases involve young people making dumb mistakes: selling their bathtub homegrown to a stranger, or lying about a pill being LSD.
This is not the work of the Zetas or the Gulf cartels.
To pad the count to 18, police included minor drug deals as far away from campus as Haltom City or Hulen Mall that only coincidentally involved students from TCU.
The list even included one case involving a man who is not a TCU student and doesn’t live near campus. Police say he sold a quarter-ounce of pot.
Other cases were beefed up only because police arranged deliveries near campus, inside the lawful “drug-free zone.”
Kennedy shares the story of Austin Carpenter, a well-connected Dallas resident falsely accused by the same undercover agent responsible for the balance of the busts in this sting.
By way of contrast, TCU Police Chief Steven McGee has no doubts: “There is no doubt that all of those arrested today are drug dealers,” he told reporters.
Really? If the undercover man bungled the Carpenter case so badly, we should expect to see a few more glitches.
As Bud Kennedy suggests, the TCU sting reveals an reflexive drug war mentality.
A companion piece
notes that 26.7% of American college football players interviewed in a recent national survey admitted using marijuana in the last year. Since test participants are notoriously conceal the full truth in these surveys, we should take this as a very conservative finding. Most college students view pot as a relatively benign alternative to alcohol. Marijuana use isn’t universal on college campuses, but it runs a close second to alcohol as the party drug of choice.
In a related story, Star-Telegram reporter Mitch Mitchell called up one a defense attorney representing two of the young people arrested in the TCU bust. Jeff Shaw says he is worried about his clients.
“It’s really got me incensed on how this is unfolding. This is a situation where these kids will forever be labeled as the TCU 17. Their lives will be [affected] by this almost beyond repair.
“It could keep them out of the military, keep them out of other colleges, out of many corporate situations, out of many government jobs. They will have to be accountable for this for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t think these people should be labeled as criminals forever.”
Sardonic sports writer Randy Galloway fired off a column
accusing TCU officials of stupidity. They could have sidestepped a media extravaganza (while cutting the players a break) by resorting to an old-fashioned cover-up:
If school officials were informed of two players dealing, then the next plan, the cover-up, is simple. They go to [football coach] Gary Patterson and tell him to remove the players from the squad and both are told to leave school.A news release then goes out in November to the media.
It tells us that [two football players] were kicked off because of “violations of school policy.” Nothing else has to be said due to the privacy rules.
We can guess, of course, that it was drug related, but it’s not a “big story.”
Plus, this tactic would have sent a heat-is-on message to the two other players also dealing, and let’s assume they shut it down, or at least common sense would indicate such.
Galloway’s real-world approach is refreshing. If you want your players off the booze and drugs set strict standards and enforce them. Kids who make dumb decisions should forfeit their right to play football. But we don’t need to criminalize their behavior. These kids aren’t drug dealers in any meaningful sense.
Legal remedies destroy lives. Healthy societies find less draconian ways to maintain social standards.
Is a healthy minority (or a slight majority) of college students on a one-way street to addiction? No. Pain, psychological as well as physical, causes addiction. Addicts self-medicate because they want the hurting to stop. College students who use marijuana (or alcohol) as a social lubricant aren’t candidates for addiction.
Marijuana became illegal because it was associated with poor black and Latino cultures. During the reign of Richard Nixon, the weed was demonized because it was associated with long-haired war protestors.
Ask any college student about the ubiquity of pot use on campus and you will hear the same story. The stuff is everywhere. Demand creates supply. If enough people want a product, legal or illegal, somebody is going to supply it. If college students are smoking pot, chances are they are buying it from other students. Hardly anybody gets rich off this trade; most are just trying to scare up a little party money for the weekend.
I have aesthetic issues with people getting drunk or stoned. I was raised to view inebriation as stupid and shameful, and it stuck. But I have no desire to universalize my personal standards. Alcohol is legal, as it should be. I use it myself, in moderation. Marijuana, a drug I have never used, is illegal because of culture war and racial politics. There is no common sense or moral rationale for legalizing alcohol (by far the most dangerous of the two) while demonizing marijuana.
Here’s the good news! The media are no longer willing to salute every time the drug war flag is unfurled. The Star-Telegram’s remarkably thorough coverage of a major drug bust allowed readers to view the issue from multiple perspectives. That’s what a newspaper is supposed to do.