Pubdate: Thu,  8 Feb 2001
Source: Boulder Weekly (CO)
Copyright: 2001 Bolder Weekly
Contact:  (303) 494-2585
Address: 690 South Lashley Lane Boulder, CO 80303
Author: Joel Dyer


First of all, let me start by saying that the death of 16-year-old
Brittney Chambers last week was a tragic accident and I sympathize with
her family and friends. But as tragic as it was, Brittney's death was
still an accident and nothing more. On her 16th birthday at a party in
her own home, Brittney decided to take a hit of Ecstasy. For whatever
reason-God, genetics, bad luck, whatever you want to call it-Brittney
Chambers had a reaction to the drug, slipped into a coma, and died four
days later. That's what happened, and that's all that needs to happen.

Unfortunately, the "accident" concept no longer seems to be a viable
explanation for anything bad that occurs in our society. These days,
when something goes wrong, it's instantly deemed part of a trend, the
first evidence of some previously invisible epidemic that is threatening
to wipe our species from the planet if we don't do something fast. Most
times that "something" involves politicians creating new laws or harsher
sentences. It's as if we believe that by blaming and punishing someone
when accidents occur we can transform such incidents into something less
random, more manageable and less likely to strike ourselves or our loved

The media is certainly complicit if not directly to blame for this sense
that everything is a part of some larger conspiracy to which blame can
and should be attached. A college student gets raped and murdered in
Costa Rica and we run the headline "Are U.S. Exchange Students Safe?"
Never mind that the statistics tell us they are safer than students here
at home. People used to get pissed off while driving their cars, but now
they make the news as the latest example of a social plague we call
"road rage." So it should come as no surprise that when a young girl
dies from a fluke reaction to an illegal drug, it gets billed as the tip
of an Ecstasy iceberg that is threatening to destroy our nation's youth.

The idea of personal responsibility has been replaced by a theory that
everything happens as a result of someone else's actions. People use to
go to bars and get drunk, and when they broke the law, they got
arrested. End of story. But now we file charges against the waitress who
served the drinks, the bartender who poured them and the owner of the
establishment. There was a time when the person who actually shot
somebody with a gun was held solely responsible. Now we sometimes arrest
the person who sold, gave or loaned the shooter the gun, even if he
didn't know how it would be used. We file charges against anyone who
knew that the bad guy had a gun and didn't stop him. We even file suit
against the company that manufactured the damned gun. Nobody hates guns
as much as I do, but what's next? Do we give the guy on the assembly
line that polishes trigger mechanisms three to five for showing up at

Which brings me back to Brittney's case. Let's put it into perspective.
A 16-year-old girl did something stupid, which means she was a pretty
normal kid. She and her friends were experimenting with drugs. And
before you put your hand over your mouth and feign a gasp, think back
real hard, because unless you're over 70, a real nerd, or spent your
teenage years living in a bubble, you probably did the same thing once
upon a time. In the big picture, little has changed over the years
except the names of our youthful experiments. What we called MDA has
become known as Ecstasy. True, it is in greater demand now than back
then, but that's attributable to its status as the new drug du jour.

As trendy drugs go, Ecstasy is actually one of the safest to come along
in a while. Far fewer people are dying from Ecstasy than was the case
with crack, heroin, acid, meth or even cocaine. So is Ecstasy an
epidemic? It's certainly the most popular drug among teenagers these
days, but wait five minutes and something new will come along. Like
fashion trends, such drugs come and go and there really isn't a hell of
a lot we can do about it. If we have learned anything from the war on
drugs, it's that our kids are the same as we were. They don't listen.
After spending billions of dollars and putting millions of people behind
bars, just as many kids are experimenting with drugs now as ever before.
I'm not condoning their actions in any way and God knows I hope my son
is a nerd lest I have to put him in a bubble, but kids will be kids when
it comes to experimenting, and accidents will continue to happen. It's a
sad reality that makes what we do next in the Brittney Chambers case
that much more important.

The police have arrested six people in connection with Brittney's death:
four juveniles, an 18-year-old girl named Rebecca Sheffield and her
20-year-old boyfriend Travis Schuerger. So what should we do with these
six young people? Should we destroy six more lives under the guise of
"sending a message" about the dangers of Ecstasy, a message that every
study ever conducted tells us will not accomplish a single thing? In the
case of the four juveniles, do we take these kids who were just trying
to have fun at a birthday party-granted in a stupid fashion-away from
their families and put them behind bars? Will our children be safer
because these kids are sitting in a juvenile, or heaven forbid, adult
criminal justice system where they will, without question, become
mentally scarred for the rest of their lives?

And what should we do about young Sheffield and Schuerger if they are
convicted? Do we punish them for dispensing four hits of Ecstasy, or do
we really punish them for Brittney's death? Since the Ecstasy was sold
on school property, the two are facing up to 24 years in prison. The
reality is that had Brittney not died, the maximum sentence wouldn't
even be a consideration.

Will spending $1.5 million of our tax dollars to guarantee that Rebecca
and Travis are systematically beaten, raped and otherwise physically and
mentally tortured for a couple of decades before being released back
into our midst really serve some greater good? Heaven forbid we spend
$10,000 to at least try and get them help through counseling, rehab,
boot camp or any of the other programs that have actually been proven to
rehabilitate young offenders such as these two.

But the truth is, these more effective, more cost efficient alternatives
to prison wouldn't serve the real purpose here. The real purpose here is
that somebody has to be punished for the fact that Brittney decided to
swallow that pill and died, because if no one is punished, it means that
no one is to blame. And if no one is to blame, it means that accidents
really do happen. And if accidents happen, it means that we might just
wake up tomorrow, go to work, not do anything wrong, and yet, something
terrible could still happen to us. It would mean that we are not in
control-and that's a scary proposition for most of us.

Brittney Chamber's death was a tragic accident. Causing six more lives
to be destroyed will not bring her back or prevent anyone else from
dying. Whatever happens to those few whose hands touched the tiny pill
before Brittney chose to swallow it, one thing is for sure: it won't be
an accident.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk