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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, June 1, 2008

EVER WONDER HOW THE HUMAN RACE has managed to survive, given the fact that all adult humans have, at some point, been 19? I'll stipulate that I was stupider and more careless than many 19-year-olds, but not all -- I know of at least two other now-responsible former 19-year-olds who were with me at the time and made the same horrendous, inexplicable decisions.

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How horrendous?

On break from our studies in Holland, we ran out of money in Paris and accepted a ride back to Utrecht with an American who also happened to be ... 19. It never occurred to us to wonder how he managed to be driving a new Citroen around Europe. And when the truth emerged -- he was transporting three kilos of hashish not-so-expertly hidden in the car's door panels -- did we leap out and get away as fast as we could run? No. Our attitude was: "Hey, it's a free ride."

There had been a political assassination in Spain, and across Europe soldiers were in manhunt mode, glaring from improvised checkpoints, weapons in hand. Somehow, we made it through. The dealer slept on our couch for three days, thoroughly wearing out his welcome and leaving behind a vicious lice infestation. We later heard that on his return trip he had been stopped at the Belgian border, searched, arrested, thrown into solitary for three months and then deported.

That easily could have been our fate as well, and it can be argued that we would have deserved it, and maybe even learned from it. Three months of terror followed by a flight home might well have cured us of our stupendous stupidity.

I'm guessing Mike Short would agree with that. Short, about to turn 19, was basically a good kid, a talented basketball player, who had the bad judgment to give in to the temptation of easy money. He was caught selling crack cocaine at the bidding of a neighborhood dealer -- not much more than those three kilos of hash. What Short did was even stupider than what I had done, and because it was crack, not hash, or even powder cocaine, that small-time crime brought him a big-time sentence. Where three months in prison might have been instructive, the 15 years hard time that Short served was something else again.

In the article by Vanessa M. Gezari that begins on Page 18, you can read about how Short has refused to let losing half of his young life to a harsh federal law destroy the rest of it. But the story raises other questions, one of which is this: If you can't forgive the pudding-headed errors of teenagers, how can you forgive the miscalculations of middle-age politicians who 22 years ago crafted what most now believe was a very bad law, but have yet to rescind it?

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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