A student charged with selling marijuana as part of a prolific drug-dealing ring at Columbia University will get a chance to wipe his record clean by spending at least a year living in a drug-abuse treatment center, a judge decided Tuesday.
Christopher Coles is the only one of five students arrested in the case to get that opportunity, extended to more than 1,000 people statewide each year. The Columbia students are perhaps the most high-profile defendants to try to get the option, known as diversion to treatment, since 2009 changes in state law gave judges more latitude to use it.
Their cases spurred debate among their lawyers and prosecutors, plus some observers, over whether they were suitable candidates for a program intended for people whose addictions fuel their crimes.
The 21-year-old Coles, charged with selling as much as a pound of marijuana to an undercover officer, was in just that predicament, said his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo. The political science and anthropology major from Maryland developed a $70-to-$100-a-day pot-smoking habit while in college and sought treatment for it on campus weeks before his arrest last December, Agnifilo said.
"On his own, before there was ever a criminal case, he contacted the counseling department," where a psychiatrist diagnosed him as dependent on marijuana, Agnifilo said after court Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Coles' parents took a stand against his drug use by cutting him off financially, so he sold the drugs to finance his habit, his lawyer said.
But the city Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office said Coles' dealing was motivated by profit-seeking, not addiction. Coles is seen on video making businesslike, sober-seeming transactions with the undercover officer, Assistant District Attorney Catherine Christian told a judge Tuesday.
"There's no indication that his smoking marijuana was a contributing factor to his marijuana sales," she said.
Noting that Coles has recently failed two marijuana tests, she suggested his prospects for treatment weren't strong. Agnifilo said the failed tests show inpatient treatment is what Coles needs.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Ellen Coin, who oversees a special drug court, decided Coles was a fit for the diversion program, which may cost his family up to $3,000 a month. He's due to start treatment after a Dec. 20 court date. If he succeeds, the case would ultimately be dismissed; if he fails, he would face a sentence yet to be determined.
While diversion programs have existed in New York for years, a 2009 overhaul of the state's once notoriously stringent drug laws argued in part that addicted offenders would more likely be reformed by treatment than by prison.
To some, the Columbia students were prime examples. "We can send them and others to prison" at taxpayers' expense, "or we can come up with better ways to deal with the fact that human beings will always seek to alter their consciousness," science journalist Maia Szalavitz wrote on Time magazine's website last December.
But some others, including some lawmakers, said the cases stoked questions about who was meant to benefit from the treatment option. Supporters say it provides people a chance to change their lives, but critics have called it an easy way out.
In the 12 months after the law took effect in October 2009, the number of felony suspects sent to drug courts for diversion statewide jumped by about 160 percent, to 2,800, over the 2008 total, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice Statistics. The increase was offset slightly by a drop in admissions to treatment programs some district attorneys had run.
Among cases handled by the New York City Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office, judges have granted half the more than 330 requests defendants have made for diversion since the law changed, according to statistics provided by the prosecutor's office. It handles certain drug cases throughout the city.
Judges turned down about 35 percent of the requests; the rest were withdrawn, the statistics show. Almost a third of those granted were to people who primarily used marijuana, according to the statistics.
A different judge recommended in September that Coles be considered for the program, turning down similar bids from three other students, Adam Klein, Jose Stephen Perez and Michael Wymbs. While each faced different charges, some included selling LSD and Ecstasy.
A fourth student, Harrison David, wasn't eligible for diversion because he faced more serious charges of selling cocaine.
David is serving a six-month jail sentence after pleading guilty to a cocaine charge. Wymbs pleaded guilty last week to attempted drug possession and is expected to get five years' probation. The cases against Klein and Perez, who have pleaded not guilty, haven't been resolved.
Columbia has declined to comment on the students' current status.
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