A jury has not even been selected in the case of the United States of America v. Marion S. Barry Jr., but a recent visit to "Drug Alley," as the first floor of the D.C. Superior Court is called, made clear that the verdict on drug use is already in.

Each year, 10,000 to 15,000 District residents, mostly young black men, are arrested and hauled into Superior Court on charges that they possessed illegal drugs or attempted to distribute them.

A few of the users maintain that they were only hurting themselves, as Barry claimed recently. But a look around the courtrooms invariably reveals someone, usually a girlfriend or grandmother, sobbing or wringing his or her hands.

Many drug dealers invoke the "addicts exception" rule, claiming they were hooked on drugs. That nullifies the District's mandatory minimum sentence for drug distribution because, according to local law, selling drugs to support a habit is not as bad as selling drugs to make a profit.

If using that tactic sounds like a clever escape from justice, one need only listen to the addicts' confessions. The compulsion that forced them to "live to use and use to live," as they say, was a prison unto itself. Many have gunshot wounds and knife marks to show for what happened when drug deals went bad.

To this sad and desperate lot can now be added Marion Barry, twice as old as most and supposedly much wiser. So historic are the drug possession and perjury charges against him that he is to be tried in federal court, if only to convey his importance as mayor of the nation's capital.

But regardless of his title and the power it conveys, the indictment against Barry reads the same as for all the others: busted for smoking crack.

Addiction, the great equalizer, had treated the District's chief law enforcement officer with the same callous disregard as it had the lowest crack crumb snatcher.

That Barry seemed able to function after smoking cocaine -- three puffs at the Vista before heading back to work, prosecutors allege -- may have some wondering if Barry was merely a "casual user."

A possible clue is the use of drugs in inappropriate places and at any and all times, which is characteristic of most addicts who come through Superior Court.

The stories they tell, usually during pleas for lighter sentences, make for a pattern of substance abuse into which Barry's comments after a stay in two treatment programs fit perfectly.

They speak of fear, pain, rejection and hate. What they thought was fun about using drugs turned out to be, in retrospect, relief from the hurt of living in quiet desperation.

When one drug stops working, they turn to something stronger. And most said they were not even aware of the chaos around them until they stopped using drugs completely.

Lying, denial, isolation and feelings of invincibility all are as much a part of the disease of addiction as the use of the drug itself.

After Barry's arrest at the Vista Hotel in January, many residents wondered what could possess him to take such a risk knowing that prosecutors were on the attack.

What made the mayor of the most powerful city in the world behave the same as a man who had no hope of achieving anything? Why would he risk everything the same as someone who had nothing to lose?

The verdict was most definitely in: drug addiction and alcoholism are no respecters of age, race, sex, creed, religion, income or position. Those two demons could take anybody for a ride, leave them sprawled in a gutter or cursing as some undercover officer pulls out his badge.

But what to do about people who are addicted to drugs? The opinions are far from unanimous -- with some judges recommending treatment to repeat offenders while others send them to jail.

To be sure, federal prosecutors have bent over backward to press criminal charges against Barry. That's how the nation has elected to wage its so-called war on drugs. Indeed, virtually all the drug defendants in Superior Court have been caught up in some kind of police undercover scheme to buy or sell illegal drugs.

It is a great paradox that the arrest of many drug suspects has given them time -- as in the case of Marion Barry -- to save their lives.

But how? By treating addiction as a disease or a crime? On that count, the jury on Drug Alley is hung.