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May 26, 2008 -- Florida Times-Union (FL)

Column: Some Are Driven To Crime By Economic Desperation

By Tonyaa Weathersbee, The Times-Union

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Ruth Davis says she isn't on drugs. But she was desperate.

She's also a cautionary tale.

According to a recent McClatchy News Service story, the Miami grandmother is sitting in a North Carolina jail. She's been there since December. That was when a state trooper nabbed her as she was transporting 33 pounds of marijuana to New York.

He stopped Davis for speeding, but then noticed a strong odor as she rolled down her car window. Her answers to the trooper's questions about her travel plans didn't jibe.

So he asked if he could search her car. She agreed. But Davis didn't know he was going to call the dogs to help him look.

Game over.

Drug enforcement officials say that people like Davis, who is 65, are becoming part of a trend; that drug dealers are now recruiting elderly people to carry drugs because there's less of a chance that they will be stopped or profiled. There's also the chance that police will be disarmed by their sweetness and vulnerability. Davis, in fact, said that she had hoped to charm her way out of a speeding ticket.

I almost wish that had worked for her. Because it wasn't greed that made Davis agree to become a drug mule.

It was pain.

It was the pain of not being able to pay the $20,000-plus that she owed doctors for treatment of a blood disease. It was the pain of seeing her daughter's face disfigured from a car crash, and not being able to help her pay the $3,000 needed for corrective plastic surgery. It was the pain that a person feels when hitting rock bottom with no safety net to catch her.

It's a pain that has been exploited by drug dealers who recruit the desperate and the defeated.

And just as the drug trade has become the dominant economy for many poor, inner-city communities, it's not surprising that as other safety nets begin to fray, more people will grab on to anything to stop their free fall.

In Davis' case, that meant grabbing onto the promises of a drug dealer.

Me, I'm not all that surprised that some elderly folks would be vulnerable to that kind of coercion.

In some neighborhoods in which drug dealers are the closest thing to philanthropists that most people there will ever see, they help some old people pay bills. But while Davis wasn't exactly poor -- she said she owns her own home and works as a diet consultant -- her medical bills apparently still made it hard for her to make ends meet.

And, in case we forget, soaring medical bills can plunge anyone into poverty. Or it can push them to make thoughtless choices.

So when I see cases such as hers, I'm reminded of how the drug trade is fueled by different degrees of hopelessness.

In the inner cities, you have kids who work as drug sellers and lookouts because few know the lure of legitimate work, because not much of that exists where they live. Then you have some people who sell drugs to supplement low-wage jobs. Unlike Davis, they aren't casualties of an emergency as much as they are casualties of an illicit economy that has usurped the legitimate economy.

Then there's the hopelessness that turned Davis into a drug mule.

Such hopelessness is the kind that overwhelms people who are being let down by what many have come to view as guarantees in American life; that if you pay your bills, obey the law, drink your milk and say your prayers, the system won't allow misfortunes like medical emergencies to make you destitute.

Now I know that not every senior citizen who is faced with hardships is going to sell drugs. Yet, Davis' story still is a revealing one.

Among other things, it illustrates, once again, the failure of the war on drugs. We fill our prisons and jails with nonviolent offenders like Davis -- a woman who, ironically, became a felon to avoid becoming a deadbeat -- as the kingpins go free.

And even as people like Davis sit in jail, Americans continue to use drugs at about the same rate as they did when President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971.

As long as that continues to happen, and as long as jobs continue to hemorrhage and medical costs continue to spiral, people will look for ways to survive.

And the drug lords will be waiting.

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