They were students who juggled an elite education with criminal extracurriculars, dealing an array of drugs from their Ivy League dorm rooms and frat houses, prosecutors say.
But beneath the surface of academic success, some of the Columbia University students charged in a campus drug takedown in December struggled with substance abuse, according to their lawyers. Attorneys for two of the five students plan to ask a court to prescribe treatment instead of prison. It will be one of the highest-profile tests so far of a recent overhaul of New York's once notoriously stringent drug laws.
The outcome will be watched closely by opponents and proponents of 2009 changes to mitigate what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws, referring to then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. Backers called the lesser punishments a more effective and humane approach to drug crime; critics said they gave drug peddlers a pass.
The Columbia bust "is probably the case that's going to cause light to be shed on what these new laws mean: When diversion is appropriate, and what the Legislature intended when it cut back so drastically the Rockefeller laws," said Marc Agnifilo, who represents one of the students, Christopher Coles.
Coles and fellow students Harrison David, Adam Klein, Jose Perez and Michael Wymbs have pleaded not guilty and are due back in court in March.
Each student made some of the 31 sales in which an undercover officer bought about $11,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and prescription stimulants over five months, authorities said.
Prosecutors indicate that they are likely to add to the charges, but that at least for now, only David would face mandatory prison time if convicted.
In 1973, Rockefeller pushed strict laws through the Legislature that he said were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." Critics long complained that the laws were draconian and racist and filled prisons with people who needed treatment, not incarceration.
The 2009 revisions took away some mandatory minimum terms and let hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders seek to shorten their sentences. The latest changes also gave judges more latitude to send nonviolent offenders to treatment programs or other alternatives to prison.
Coles and Wymbs hope a judge will use that discretion to channel their cases to a special drug court, their lawyers said. Drug court defendants generally undergo a year or more of treatment and may end up with their charges dismissed or reduced.
To their lawyers, Coles and Wymbs are ideal candidates to illustrate the drug law reform's rehabilitation-minded message.
Coles, 20, is charged with selling marijuana and pairing in some amphetamine sales with Perez. An anthropology and political science major involved in a campus effort to combat sexual violence, Coles told police that he sold drugs to pay tuition, prosecutors said.
But Coles' lawyer said the student was in the throes of a $70-a-day marijuana habit.
Wymbs, charged with selling LSD and Ecstasy, also has "a demonstrable problem with some substances," said his lawyer, Michael Bachner, declining to be more specific. A senior applied-mathematics major, Wymbs, 22, worked as a biostatistician for a cancer-research program last summer and plans to apply to graduate school, his lawyer said.
By law, their bid for treatment depends on showing that drug dependency drove their alleged crimes. But their circumstances also raise delicate questions about how to weigh issues of privilege and promise.
While their backgrounds and plans might augur well for their success in treatment, "are we to then look at those who are less privileged in our society and may have more difficulties, and punish them more harshly, when [the students'] options were clearly more extensive?" said state Rep. Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat who was a key backer of the drug law changes. "It's a complex issue."