A Columbia University student who sold marijuana as part of a campus drug-dealing ring has begun a year of drug treatment that could get his charges dismissed, becoming a prominent example of a rehabilitation option expanded by a recent change to New York's drug laws.
Christopher Coles pleaded guilty Tuesday to selling more than a pound of marijuana to an undercover officer and steering the officer to another student to buy the prescription stimulant Adderall. But Coles, 21, will be allowed to withdraw the plea, and the case will be dismissed, if he succeeds in inpatient treatment.
One of five students arrested in December 2010 in what authorities called a major takedown of drug-peddling on the Ivy League campus, Coles was the only one approved for what's known as diversion to treatment that could wipe his legal slate clean. His lawyer had argued that Coles' own drug struggles fueled his crimes.
"Most of the people you are going to encounter there (in rehab) are not going to be college kids. This is not a fraternity," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Ellen Coin, who oversees a special drug court, told Coles. "You have a lot to gain if you finish and a lot to lose if you don't."
"I understand, Judge. Thank you," Coles replied.
A junior anthropology major when he was arrested, Coles was part of a loose-knit network of students who sold drugs ranging from marijuana to LSD-spiked candy from dorm rooms and fraternity houses, the city Special Narcotics Prosecutor's office said. Each student specialized in certain drugs and often provided referrals when customers wanted something else, prosecutors said.
They said Coles was motivated by profit, not addiction. "His marijuana selling business was a lucrative and profitable operation," netting $5,000 for a one-pound sale to an undercover officer, Assistant District Attorney William Novak wrote in court papers last year.
But Coles' lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, said Coles sold the drug to finance a $70-to-$100-a-day pot-smoking habit he'd developed in college and wanted to break, meeting with campus health counselors three times in the month before his arrest. Dismayed by his drug use, Coles' parents had made unannounced visits from their Maryland home, made him take over-the-counter drug tests and finally stopped paying their part of his tuition, Agnifilo wrote in court papers last year.
"What began as a casual habit initiated by fellow schoolmates soon escalated to a drug dependency as a means to cope with personal relationship struggles as well as his academic workload," Agnifilo wrote.
A judge approved Coles in the fall for the treatment approach. While waiting to start rehab, Coles failed some marijuana tests, prompting a judge to jail him two weeks ago.
While such treatment options have existed in some New York courts for years, a 2009 overhaul of the state's once notoriously stringent drug laws gave judges more leeway to send nonviolent offenders to treatment, on the premise that rehabilitation would work better than prison to keep them from reoffending. That and related drug-law changes spurred vigorous debate in Albany over whether the new measures represented a more effective and humane approach to drug crime or an easy way out for drug peddlers.
In the 12 months after the law took effect in October 2009, the number of felony suspects sent to drug courts for diversion statewide more than doubled to about 2,800, compared to the 2008 total, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice Statistics.
Three other students also have pleaded guilty to various drug charges. Their punishments or promised punishments range from six months in jail _ for a student who admitted selling cocaine, the most serious charge in the case _ to probation and community service.
A fifth student has pleaded not guilty.
Columbia has declined to comment on the students' current status.
Three off-campus suppliers charged in the case also have pleaded guilty.
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