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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Cameron Douglas Case Won’t Crack Drug War

MANHATTAN (CN) - The son of actor Michael Douglas earned his harsh sentence for blowing "biggest opportunity of his life" by using heroin behind bars, the 2nd Circuit ruled, though it noted sympathetically that red tape put treatment out of reach.

After his arrest for cocaine and methamphetamine dealing in 2009, Hollywood scion Cameron Douglas was hospitalized for heroin intoxication before being taken to prison.

The court granted the 30-year-old Douglas bail in return for testimony against his alleged suppliers Eduardo and David Escalera, but it revoked his house arrest when it was discovered that his girlfriend smuggled heroin to him inside an electric toothbrush.

Transferred to Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, Douglas faced a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and a guideline range of 12.5 to 15.5 years in prison, which all parties agreed would be too stiff a penalty.

His defense attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Douglas had a "privileged but troubled upbringing." Prosecutors told that judge that Douglas' cooperation proved "tremendously valuable" toward building a case against the Escalera brothers.

In letters to chambers, parents, former teachers, friends and supporters of the sometime-actor and disc jockey said Douglas had finally "bottomed out" and would work to overcome his addiction.

Their pleas convinced U.S. District Judge Richard Berman to give a five-year sentence, well under the recommended range, with a warning that Douglas had one "last chance to make it."

Prosecutors later learned that, during this time, Douglas became a Xanax supplier for other inmates at MCC. He apparently scored 30 unprescribed pills through his lawyer, with whom he had a "romantic relationship," according to the appellate court's summary.

The government nevertheless kept Douglas as a witness against David Escalera, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Two weeks after that trial, prison officials found that Douglas had used heroin and Suboxone, an "orange rock-like substance" used to treat heroin addiction.

This time, Douglas compromised his credibility as a witness by lying to prosecutors about what happened. He said he found it in the prison's television room or chapel, but they later found out another inmate had sold to him.

When they learned about his perjury, prosecutors withdrew him as a witness against the remaining Escalera brother, the court said.

At another sentencing hearing, a furious Judge Berman told Douglas he blew "the biggest opportunity of his life" with his "reckless, criminal, dangerous, destructive, deceitful conduct."

Berman tacked another 4 1/2 years to the sentence, more than twice the term prosecutors sought.

When Douglas appealed, he won the support of groups that oppose the mass incarceration of drug addicts. The New York Society of Addiction Medicine, American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, California Society of Addiction Medicine and Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights are just a few of the nonprofits that shoulder this cause.

Numerous other groups and physicians signed on as "friends of the court" on behalf of Douglas.

A three-judge panel from the 2nd Circuit refused Monday to call the harsh sentence an abuse of the judge's discretion. They nevertheless urged Congress to rethink policies of sending drug addicts to jail rather than treatment.

"It may well be that the nation would be better served by a medical approach to treating and preventing addiction than by a criminal-justice-based 'war on drugs,'" Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the panel.

The court cited Heather Schoenfeld's "The War on Drugs, the Politics of Crime and Mass Incarceration in the United States" and Juan Torruella's "Deja vu: A Federal Judge Revisits the War on Drugs," two studies that conclude that U.S. drug policy is a failure.

"But Congress has made a different choice, and this case is not a vehicle for deciding questions of comprehensive drug policy," Judge Lynch continued. "For so long as the sale and possession of narcotics remain crimes, courts must struggle with the difficult task of sentencing those who commit such crimes."

Concurring with his colleagues on the law, Judge Guido Calabresi wrote separately to criticize the "highly problematical" preference in Congress for incarceration over treatment.

He pointed out that federal prison policy made Cameron ineligible for drug abuse treatment behind bars.

"This case, then, is about an addict who would not be eligible for treatment for his addiction for more than a year, and who was, at the same time, exposed to a flourishing drug trade within the walls of the prison," he wrote in a footnote.

Though Cameron deserves blame for relapsing, the prison should shoulder a "significant level of culpability" for the failing prisoners, he added.

"No one has made the argument that this is an unconstitutional penalty imposed upon Douglas because of his status as an addict, and I believe no such argument can convincingly be made," he wrote, citing the case of Robinson v. California.

In that 1962 case, the Supreme Court rejected that incarcerating a drug addict was cruel and unusual punishment.

"As a result," he continued, "our court has no authority to stand in the way of the operation of this law, even though our experience with such cases may lead us to think it is counterproductive. And so we must affirm the district court and enforce that law."

"We can, however, make observations based on our experience. This law and laws like it require district courts to confront a vexing question every day: how to treat addicts who have suffered a relapse. We are not permitted to treat this question as a medical one, although, in some sense, it is. We dismiss Douglas's argument that he should be treated as a victim of his drug abuse, rather than as a criminal, both because that is not a legal argument, and because it seems to ask us to treat him differently from the thousands of other addicts we see every year. But it remains true that these defendants are all victims. The multiple costs of our imprisonment approach - including the expense of filling our prisons with drug addicts, to mention just a base economic cost - impel me to express the hope that Congress may some day seek out a different way of dealing with this problem."

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