Tatum O’Neal Busted For Cocaine Possession (And The Inequalities of Drug Treatment Programs)

Famed actress Tatum O’Neal was busted Sunday night for purchasing a couple bags of cocaine in the Lower East Side.  O’Neal was nabbed in what narcotics police call an “observation sale.”  In an “observation sale” operation, as opposed to a “buy and bust” operation, police do not use undercover police officers to purchase drugs but instead, observe drug sales taking place on the street between a seller and a buyer.  And for those who live in a cave, drug sales take place in open view, on the street, at all times of the day.  

The fact that O’Neal was caught buying drugs on the street is rather interesting for a celebrity like her.  Most celebrities have a “connect,” which means that a celebrity will generally purchase drugs inside in the comfort of their apartment or a friend’s apartment, not on the street, in open view of narcotics police.  Purchasing drugs on the street in the quantities that O’Neal purchased (likely two dime or two twenty bags), puts her in the same boat as the “usual” addicts that run through Manhattan’s criminal court on 100 Centre Street.  There is a certain level of desperation to a street purchase.  Given O’Neal’s history with drugs and the circumstances surrounding this arrest, highly suggests that O’Neal has a narcotics addiction.

She was charged with Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree.  This is a misdemeanor in New York, punishable by up to one year.  Of course, it is the rare defendant who actually is sentenced to this.  This will generally happen if a defendant goes to trial on a felony and is convicted of a lesser-included misdemeanor offense.  However, most defendants who are charged with CPCS 7 are either sentenced to community service or a very short jail period — depending on their criminal history.

But herein lies the problem with New York’s drug treatment programs.  When a defendant is charged with a felony, such as Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Fifth Degree (500 milligrams or more of pure cocaine) or Criminal Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree (any amount of narcotics), a defendant is offered a much larger menu of comprehensive drug treatment.  The issue is that most of the hardcore addicts are not charged with felonies, because they do not have the resources to either sell drugs or buy enough drugs to get them up to a felony.  Thus, if you walk into a Manhattan Criminal Court Arraignment, the worst looking cocaine or heroin addicts — the street buyers — are charged with the misdemeanor of simple possession.

What happens when a defendant is charged with a misdemeanor?  Either the defendant is given a slap on the wrist or the drug treatment offered is not comprehensive enough.  The resources are saved for defendants charged with felonies.  On paper and in politics, this makes a lot of sense.  But in practice, there are definite inequities that only perpetuate drug addiction. 

The defendants with some of the biggest drug problems (imagine someone like Bubbles from The Wire) are not given the opportunity for real life-changing and comprehensive drug treatment, because they are given the fortune of a misdemeanor charge.

But is society really doing anyone a favor?  I am not saying that defendants charged with misdemeanors should be charged with felonies.  What I am saying is that the opportunities for drug treatment that defendants charged with felonies receive should be given to those defendants charged with misdemeanors. 

Felony defendants are given the opportunity for long-term residential drug treatment — the kind of drug treatment that can work.  These defendants take part in multi-step programs, from removing the narcotics addition to living independently.  Some of these defendants are in these programs for five plus years. 

But when you are charged with a misdemeanor, you’ll be lucky if you can get a spot in a residential drug treatment program.  You’ll likely get assigned a once a week outpatient program.  Is it any wonder that many of these defendants do not succeed?

Although you will read that Tatum O’Neal will likely receive a drug treatment program, it will not do much for fixing her problem.  Of course, a person with an addiction has to want to improve.  There is no question that a level of individual will is involved.  But a person with an addiction must be given the opportunities to make that choice, in a supportive environment.  Drug treatment programs for those charged with felonies attempt to equip people with the wherewithal to make that choice.  The same cannot be said for those charged with misdemeanors.  

O’Neal’s best bet will not be through the state but through private, long-term residential drug treatment.  Tatum O’Neal has the resources to fix her life. 

But the same cannot be said for the majority of drug addicts, who will cycle through the criminal justice system — untreated — just below the “felony radar.”