Trey Gowdy

Our Chief Justice is a prescient person. In her “State of the Judiciary” address before the South Carolina General Assembly yesterday, she said our criminal justice system is “slowly unraveling.” Prisons are burgeoning. Backlogs are exploding. She’s right—our system is unraveling. And the thread that broke first and hangs loosest and longest, in my opinion, is the one called “drugs.”

Drugs are everywhere. After a speech this week, a businesswoman asked me what percentage of my work is drug related. “Conservatively,” I answered, “about 90 percent.” To be sure, only about one-fourth of my backlog is bona fide drug cases: possession, possession with intent to distribute, distribution, and trafficking. But drug-related? Almost everything is drug-related.

Jeffrey Motts missed death row by a vote or two. He wrote yesterday from prison. He’s there for killing two relatives for money. To invest? To buy a book? No, he did it for a thirty-minute high. He did it for crack cocaine. Two lives for a rock of crack cocaine.

Burglaries. Larcenies. Shoplifting. They all clog our docket. Many, if not most, are drug related. Criminal domestic violence. Felony DUI. Drugs are somewhere at the root of most crimes. FBI agent Jim Lannaman theorized that 80 percent of the bank robberies in our area are drug related. I disagreed. It’s more like 90 percent.  

I got a letter this morning from my best friend from elementary school. We sang Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” together in a 6th-grade talent show. We lost, and then we lost touch through high school. He wrote from state prison. You guessed it—drugs. He wants “his old buddy” to help him sing another verse of freedom. Can’t help you, Victor. Mandatory minimums are rather inflexible.

We’ve been fighting a war on drugs for more than 20 years. Casualties are everywhere. In prisons. In foster homes. On government subsidy. In graveyards. On trial dockets. In state budgets. Hanging on the wall in the DEA office in Greenville, S.C. is my most poignant reminder of this war. It’s a picture of all the DEA agents killed in the line of duty across the world. I saw it last year preparing for a cocaine conspiracy trial. There was Enrique Camarena. His death spawned a movie that first introduced me to the drug war 11 years ago. I bet cocaine is cheaper and more readily available now than it was when the Mexican government aided and abetted Camarena’s death. Wonder what he would think about NAFTA.

Another meeting in Cherokee County Friday afternoon on yet another murder involving drugs. Some parents call about their kid being picked up with marijuana—the selling kind, not the smoking kind. They think he deserves a third chance. Why not, I ask my deputy solicitor facetiously. What difference does it make? If someone wants to buy marijuana tomorrow they’ll get it whether this person is in jail or not. So too with crack cocaine and LSD and heroin.

At the U.S. Attorney’s Office I prosecuted over 300 drug dealers. The sentences ranged from probation to life without parole. The local media was so bored with drug cases that it virtually took life without parole to generate interest. I didn’t even begin to make a dent in the availability of drugs

I used to watch William F. Buckley Jr. debate Michael Kinsley—and cheer for Buckley, of course. That is, until he advocated the decriminalization of drugs. I can’t bring myself to wave the white flag in this war—despite the casualties. I’m afraid if we pull this thread the whole fabric will come unraveled.

Our legislature may well decide to build new courts and add judges. Later they’ll have to build more prisons. And then do it all again. It’s easier than solving the problem of drugs. We need a larger plan in our culture and in our court systems. Larger than decriminalization. Larger than the biggest prison we can build. Before we effectively teach our children that drugs are illegal, maybe we should convince ourselves they’re wrong.