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Teens Learn Consequences of Drugs

August 21, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ He was 19, held a full-time job and had never been in trouble with the police before his big mistake.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary with no chance of parole for serving as translator for a Spanish-speaking friend selling drugs to a buyer who turned out to be an undercover agent.

The sentence shocked him and spurred his lawyer, Deborah Persico, to spend the next five years giving other teen-agers the straight dope on the legal consequences of drug involvement.

``That’s the jaw-dropper,″ she said. ``When I tell kids that aiding and abetting a felony is itself a felony and may draw the same punishment, I always get the same astonished reaction.″

Since 1993, Persico has been stunning students at high schools in and around the nation’s capital with hour-long presentations aimed at puncturing misconceptions.

``These kids had no clue whatsoever,″ she said. ``I figured someone needed to tell them how an act they might consider minor could have very serious repercussions.″

Persico uses members of her audiences in role-playing skits to get across her major points:

_Mandatory sentences apply even to first-time offenders.

_You can be convicted of possession with intent to distribute even if you never laid hands on the drugs.

_You can be convicted of drug-trafficking for merely referring customers to a seller.

_Giving a known drug dealer a ride or hosting a party where others sell drugs can result in your prosecution.

_Such offenses can be felonies and result in long prison sentences, depending on the type and quantity of drug involved.

``I’m trying to reach the kids on the edge _ some whose friends are dealers or those toying with the idea of making some fast money illegally,″ Persico said. ``Some just think the drug scene is cool. These are the kids I think I’m reaching, maybe helping them not fall off the edge.″

Teen-agers who might not be impressed with cautionary tales about the health effects of drugs can appreciate the impact of sitting in a prison cell for three, five or 10 years, she said.

Persico makes no claims of turning around teen-agers who have been involved with drugs for years, but she believes they too need the education.

``They’re street-smart in the sense that they know how to prepare and package the drugs, feel out customers and hide from the cops,″ she said. ``But they don’t know what actually will happen if they get caught, and they will get caught.″

National statistics on drug-related arrests indicate a ``really dramatic growth″ among juveniles, said expert Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor. ``Because of the renewed popularity of marijuana, it’s really a juvenile phenomenon not matched by arrests of adults.″

Persico’s optimal audiences comprise high school juniors and seniors. ``Even though the drug problem is starting at a much earlier age now, only those kids 18 and over get adult sentences,″ she said. ``Kids who are 17 and 18 see the relevance to their lives, but the younger kids tend to tune me out.″

Persico, who practices law in the District of Columbia and Virginia, hopes she soon will be able to take her message to teen-agers nationwide.

Her program, ``From Sale to Jail _ Just the Facts About Felony Drug Crimes,″ may become a video distributed to high schools, colleges, law enforcement agencies and community groups nationwide. ``It’s in the works, but as yet we have no funding,″ she said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Richard Carelli covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.