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updated 1/30/2011 2:28:55 PM ET 2011-01-30T19:28:55

They were students who juggled an elite education with criminal extracurriculars, dealing an array of drugs from Ivy League dorm rooms and frat houses, prosecutors say.

But beneath the surface of academic success, some of the Columbia University students charged in a campus drug takedown struggled with substance abuse, their lawyers say. Attorneys for two of the five students plan to ask a court to prescribe treatment instead of prison — one of the most high-profile tests so far of a recent overhaul of New York's once-notoriously stringent drug laws.

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The outcome will be watched closely by opponents and proponents of 2009 changes to mitigate what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Backers called the lesser punishments a more effective and humane approach to drug crime; critics said they gave drug peddlers a pass.

With the bid for what's known as "diversion" to treatment, the Columbia bust "is probably the case that's going to cause light to be shed on what these new laws mean: When diversion is appropriate, and what the Legislature intended when it cut back so drastically the Rockefeller laws," said Marc Agnifilo, who represents one of the students, Christopher Coles.

Coles and fellow students Harrison David, Adam Klein, Jose Perez and Michael Wymbs were arrested in December, have pleaded not guilty and are due back in court in March. Authorities called the arrests one of the largest drug takedowns at a New York City college in recent memory, and the prestigious setting made the case a media magnet.

Each student made some of the 31 sales in which an undercover officer bought about $11,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and prescription stimulants over five months, authorities said. Drugs, paraphernalia and more than $6,600 in cash were found in the students' rooms, according to the office of special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan.

Prosecutors have indicated they're likely to add to the charges, but at least for now, only David faces mandatory prison time if convicted.

In 1973, Nelson Rockefeller, governor at the time, pushed strict laws through the Legislature that he said were needed to fight a drug-related "reign of terror." Critics long complained the laws were draconian and racist and filled prisons with people who needed treatment, not incarceration.

The 2009 revisions took away some mandatory minimum terms — after the harshest terms were eliminated in 2004 — and let hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders seek to shorten their sentences. The latest changes also gave judges more latitude to send nonviolent offenders to treatment programs or other alternatives to prison, on the premise that addressing addictions would do more to change some offenders' criminal behavior than would locking them up.

Coles and Wymbs hope a judge will use that discretion to channel their cases to a special drug court, their lawyers said. Drug court defendants generally undergo a year or more of treatment and may end up with their charges dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.

To their lawyers, Coles and Wymbs are ideal candidates to illustrate the drug law reform's rehabilitation-minded message.

Coles, 20, is charged with selling marijuana and pairing in some amphetamine sales with Perez. An anthropology and political science major involved in a campus effort to combat sexual violence, Coles told police he sold drugs to pay tuition, prosecutors said.

But Coles' lawyer said the student was in the throes of a roughly $70-a-day marijuana habit. It had become so problematic that his father had called Columbia to express concern, Agnifilo said; a university spokesman declined to comment.

Wymbs, charged with selling LSD and Ecstasy, also has "a demonstrable problem with some substances," said his lawyer, Michael Bachner, declining to be more specific. A senior applied-mathematics major, Wymbs, 22, worked as a biostatistician for a cancer-research program last summer and plans to apply to graduate school, his lawyer said.

"At the end of the day, Michael Wymbs is better off among us, working to help society, than being labeled as a felon and being ostracized," Bachner said.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the students' request. A judge has yet to weigh it.

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By law, their bid for treatment depends on showing that drug dependency drove their alleged crimes. But their circumstances also raise delicate questions about how to weigh issues of privilege and promise.

While their backgrounds and plans might augur well for their success in treatment, "are we to then look at those who are less privileged in our society and may have more difficulties, and punish them more harshly, when (the students') options were clearly more extensive?" said state Rep. Jeffrion Aubry, a Queens Democrat who was a key backer of the drug law changes. "It's a complex issue."

The move toward sending more offenders to treatment was in a fraught part of the drug-law debate, with opposing sides disputing whether it would provide people opportunities to change their lives or give opportunists an easy way out. One critic of the 2009 changes said he wasn't sure they were meant to mitigate punishments for defendants like the Columbia students.

"I think you really have to take a close look at this, and is this really what we meant by a second chance?" said state Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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