My Felony Charge Confirmed Just How Terrible the Drug War Really Is

illustration of war on drugs
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The day before I was arrested on felony drug possession charges, I sold my plasma. I regretted that choice later, when I was booked at St. Landry Parish Jail. After I donned an orange jumpsuit, unbraided my hair, and scraped the glitter off my cheeks, the only remaining signifier of my identity beyond ward of the state was a tiny crescent-shaped wound nestled in the crook of my elbow. It looked like a track mark. They'd peg me for a junkie.

I wasn't a junkie. I was a 21-year-old college junior who preferred ketamine to keg stands. And I had just become a casualty of the war on drugs.

A user is born

My infatuation with illicit substances was a late development. I'd been a straitlaced kid whose after-school activities revolved around marching band and study groups. That's partly because I was borderline nerdy and partly because my sister was the resident hellraiser, blasting Marilyn Manson and snorting meth before she was even in high school. She wore a safety pin on her JNCO jeans so she could make pipes from Coke cans on the fly.

I wouldn't try drugs until I was 20, working the swing shift at a Baton Rouge Marriott. One crystalline night in December, my co-worker Zane convinced me to come out with him. "Take, eat, this is my body," he intoned as he pushed a tab of ecstasy onto my tongue. Zane was extremely fond of Jesus and raves, and that night, I would come to taste both in the bitter tang of MDMA. The scales fell from my eyes. I was a woman transformed. I was rolling. And drugs were glorious.

The honeymoon phase never lasts long

After that party, I had dozens of instant friends. I did ecstasy at least every weekend and soon added cocaine, marijuana, meth (good old meth!), nitrous oxide, opium, hydrocodone, salvia, mushrooms, and LSD to the list, plus a veritable alphabet soup of research chemicals. I wasn't above huffing video head cleaner. It was all purely recreational, though. I didn't need drugs. I could quit if I wanted to. I just didn't want to.

I was a woman transformed. I was rolling. And drugs were glorious.

It was mid-July when my friend Randy, his boyfriend, and I embarked on a road trip to Ville Platte, Louisiana, for a weekend-long outdoor music festival that promised free camping, Tiki-lit trails, massage therapists, and mist tents. The car was pretty well hot-boxed when we turned into the final stretch of road. I was contemplating whether to drop my acid or wait until we were at the party when a cop pulled us over for speeding. But a maniacally barking German shepherd in the car hinted at a deeper agenda.

Randy was arrested for possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of Schedule II amphetamines, possession of cocaine (it was actually ketamine), possession of LSD with intent to distribute, and possession of paraphernalia. The cops found a tote bag with three LSD-soaked SweeTarts, which I'd squirreled away for my own personal use. In a regular Columbo move, the officer looked from the bottle of silver glitter in my tote to my sparkly cheeks and said I was under arrest, too.

Randy and I rode in the back of the cop car in silence as green sugarcane fields rolled by. It would have been pretty if not for the bars, handcuffs, and police radio static.

Time at St. Landry Parish Jail doesn't look the same for everyone

Ville Platte is a small town, population about 7,400, so Randy and I were housed at the same jail. Male inmates lived on the first floor and female inmates lived on the second floor. I gave my booking information, surrendered my personal items, and deloused myself in a cold shower while a heavyset female guard watched, expressionless. Next, she looked up my butthole. It all seemed so surreal. Then again, I was still high.

She led me to my cell block. There, a series of two-bed cells opened into a common area with tables, a pay phone, and a high-mounted TV. Most of the inmates were sitting on the floor, backs against the wall, watching TV. I was the star of my cell block when I arrived. "What are you in for?" they'd ask, and then, when I told them, "Are you tripping right now?"

We went to a drugstore, bought cough-suppressant tablets, and robotripped in a motel pool, waiting to be arraigned.

After eating a dinner of two cold hot dogs, I tried to sleep. As I stared at a grated slit of window from my thin plastic mattress, my cellie, who was black, told me her story. She'd been picked up on a bench warrant for unpaid speeding tickets and had spent the last three weeks in jail. I wondered how I'd fare if I were jailed for that long, what would happen to my life outside. I'd fail my summer courses, lose my two part-time jobs. I thought how unfair it was that I could literally buy my freedom, when my cellmate couldn't.

And that's exactly what ended up happening. The next day, Randy's boyfriend bailed me out on my parents' credit card. Deposited back into the gelatinous Louisiana heat, I wanted nothing more than to be high. So we went to a drugstore, bought cough-suppressant tablets, and robotripped in a motel pool, waiting to be arraigned.

The sentencing and aftermath

I was charged with possession of LSD, a felony. The judge offered me a diversion program. I had to complete rehab, 500 hours of community service, a year of probation, and pay some fees, and then my record would be expunged. All because I had money and a good lawyer. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say being a white person didn't hurt me either.

Let's compare that to my friend Carl, who was also pretty active in the same rave scene. We were both arrested in summer 2001 in small Southern Louisiana towns (Ville Platte and St. Francisville). We were both LSU students, ages 21 and 22. Both arrested for LSD -- I was charged with possession and Carl was charged with possession with intent to distribute. We had a lot in common.

Now here's what's different. Carl's a black man and I'm a white woman. Intent to distribute does carry more weight, but the very language of that law leaves a lot to interpretation: If there are a bunch of drugs, that's a factor, but so too are whether you have drug paraphernaIia, packaging materials, and so on.

I spent one night in jail. Carl spent three months. "They'd set my bond so high -- $40,000," he recalled. "My parents didn't have that kind of money. So I sat."

My bail was $1,000. When I went to sentencing, I had a good lawyer courtesy of my white middle-class parents. "I had to accept a plea bargain because I didn't have money for a lawyer," Carl told me.

I was offered a diversion program. Carl was offered probation for five years, and after that his felony was reduced to a misdemeanor, not expunged like mine was. In almost every way, I am a living example of white privilege in the justice system: black people are likely to receive higher bail amounts for the same crime, more likely to receive harsher sentences, and less likely to be offered diversion programs. And although I was a victim of the war on drugs, the war on drugs was never about imprisoning people like me.

illustration of uncle sam
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Why the war on drugs is racist bullshit

By now, you probably know this old refrain. The war on drugs began in 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "America's public enemy number one." In a 1994 interview, Nixon's domestic affairs advisor, John Ehrlichman, stated that the goal to eliminate drug abuse was little more than a ruse: "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Nixon didn't pull this idea from thin air. In 1914, a New York Times headline read, "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are A New Southern Menace." In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics continued to capitalize on racism in order to demonize marijuana. During the modern era, racism became more indirect, with things like harsher sentencing guidelines for crack users (who are mostly black) than for powdered cocaine users (who are mostly white). The end result is that while white people are more likely to abuse drugs than people of color, black people are 10 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug arrests.

Although I was a victim of the war on drugs, the war on drugs was never about imprisoning people like me.

"The unfair application of laws wasn't a flaw in the war on drugs," wrote Jarvis DeBerry in The Times-Picayune. "The unfairness was the point."

I could examine the numbers to believe racism in the war on drugs exists, or I could simply examine my own life. "You were at LSU, right?" Carl asked me. "Now, when you were looking for something, was it more often from someone white or non-white?"

Often, my drug supplier was Carl's former roommate, an LSU student I'd met in rehab. A white guy.

Fifteen years and a felony drug charge later...

Now entering our late 30s, Carl and I both live in New Orleans. Carl works two service-industry jobs in the French Quarter and graduated this month with an associate of applied science in computer information and technology. I work for a local alt-weekly and do freelance writing. The war on drugs, my arrest, and my subsequent stint in rehab didn't teach me that drugs are bad. I don't believe I was an addict, and I still smoke weed, drink, and eat the occasional mushroom. It did, however, open my eyes to my unfair advantages in this world. As for Carl, he said the experience changed him "a lot." "I would like to live a life where that didn't happen," he said. "But, as they say, you play the hand you're dealt."

*Names have been changed

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Missy Wilkinson is older and wiser now. Follow her on Twitter at @missy_wilkinson.