Charged with a drug felony, you get a trial. If convicted, prison or a suspended sentence probably await. In any event, once you've completed your sentence and parole, you go back to being a regular member of society, right?
Wrong, if you live in Tennessee, Illinois, or Minnesota and were recently convicted of making methamphetamine. Tennessee adopted a "methamphetamine offender registry" in 2005, patterning its law after the sex-offender registries now kept by all 50 states. The names of all new meth felons who made or sold the drug are stored in a public Web database, where they stay for seven years. Next came Illinois, whose law logs only meth manufacturers. Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty mandated a Tennessee-style registry and he promises his state's Web site containing the names, birth dates, and conviction information of meth offenders will be up by year's end. Oklahoma, Georgia, and other states are also considering meth registries.
Of all the crimes on the books—of all the drug crimes on the books—why are states singling out methamphetamine offenders for such exacting scrutiny and ostracism? It's not the potential dangers posed by the drug, or the states would have listed convicted heroin merchants years ago. Nor is it an issue of fire and health hazards posed by clandestine meth labs, or else the states would insist on building out their Web sites to include clandestine PCP manufacturers, too.
Nor can anyone argue that meth makers and dealers are like sex offenders, hopeless recidivists who can't stop themselves from committing the crime again and again and must be publicly monitored in the interest of public safety.
As I've argued in these pages before, the war on meth has become a moral panic, driving everybody a little crazy. No anti-meth measure is considered too strong by Congress or the legislatures; no utterance about the drug regarded as too ridiculous to appear in a governor's speech or on the front page of a daily newspaper. The meth registries are the modern version of medieval stocks, and the people we list in them our era's witches and sorcerers.
What exactly will this punitive harassment accomplish? It certainly won't encourage meth offenders to assume a lawful place in society. Minnesota State Attorney General Mike Hatch, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate for governor and no softie on the drug issue, considers the meth registry a referral service for users. "What better place to find a meth dealer than on an Internet Web site," Hatch said last week.
Or maybe not. The Tennessee meth registry doesn't promise accuracy, covering its ass with a disclaimer on the home page stating that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is in charge of the database, doesn't verify any of the information sent to it by counties. If it's not accurate, why bother?
Even if desirable, are the registries practical? Law enforcement doesn't have the resources to keep tabs on sex offenders who refuse to register. How are they going to track the thousands of meth offenders streaming out of prisons? Would any police chief, sheriff, or state attorney general advocate such a deployment of resources?
The most hysterical of the anti-drug warriors won't be satisfied until they've established meth registries in 50 states, but even then they won't be happy, any more than the advocates of the sex-offender registries were happy after every state set up sex-offender registries. The advocates demanded a nationally searchable database so offenders just across state borders could be spotted, and now they've got one.
Maybe I'm wrong and a registry of meth offenders is a terrific crime-stopper of an idea. But if it is such a great idea, why isn't anybody calling for registries of reckless drivers, white-collar bandits, bunco artists, and petty thieves?