John Oliver's Paltry Three Ounces of Meth
Comedian John Oliver's rant against mandatory minimums is making the media rounds. Watching it, I was struck by the story of Kevin Ott (3:32), who says he was given life in prison for three ounces of meth. Oliver scoffs that "we're treating him like he's Season 5 Walter White when he's barely Episode 1 Jesse Pinkman."
Oliver's right: The drug war isn't going well to say the least, and some aspects of mandatory minimums need reform. But was Ott really put away for life just for having three ounces of meth? And how much meth is three ounces anyway?
A key fact is that Ott had a significant criminal history. He had previously been convicted of wife battery and drug and weapon violations. During his final arrest he was found with a loaded handgun in addition to the drugs, despite the fact he was under court supervision. But it was drugs alone that got him the life sentence in 1997: Oklahoma's "three strikes" law applied whenever a person was convicted of a drug felony and had two previous drug-related convictions on his record. (The law was weakened somewhat just a few months ago.)
As for the amount of meth, in an appeals-court court decision the precise amount is reported as 102.8 grams, actually closer to four ounces than three. (There are about 28 grams in an ounce.) The document also says meth is normally sold in 1/16- or 1/8-ounce packages, which amounts to 1.75 to 3.5 grams. Yes, Ott was more akin to early Jesse Pinkman than to late Walter White — and perhaps drugs should be legal entirely — but 102.8 grams is a fair amount of meth to have sitting around at a single point in time: about 30-60 sales, worth thousands of dollars. The court said, quoting from a previous decision: "This is not a minor drug offense but a major crime."
Illegal drugs are typically sold in fractions of an ounce, sometimes even fractions of a gram. (This report about the drug trade in Ohio has some more up-to-date numbers collected during interviews with drug users.) When something is sold in quantities that small, even seemingly tiny amounts can be substantial.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen