An Oregon teenager is facing federal drug charges and up to a year in jail for possessing a gram of marijuana, according to his lawyer — the first marijuana possession case federal authorities have prosecuted in the state since 2011.
Devontre Thomas, 19, recently graduated from Chemawa Indian School in Salem and is heading to college this fall. But first, he’ll have to take a trip to the federal courthouse in Portland to fight the charge, stemming from an incident in March 2015.
Oregon voters legalized the adult use of recreational marijuana in 2014. But it remains illegal for all purposes under federal law, where it is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same designation as heroin. The Justice Department has officially adopted a hands-off policy when it comes to state-level marijuana laws, as outlined in a 2013 memo by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. However, the memo states that U.S. attorneys should continue to prosecute cases involving “the distribution of marijuana to minors.”
Still, many are calling it a federal overreach, given the minuscule amount of marijuana involved in Thomas’s case — enough for one or two typical joints.
“The federal government hasn’t prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told the Willamette Week. “Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state.”
The details of the case were first reported by Oregon’s KGW.com and the Willamette Week. Thomas’s lawyer, public defender Ruben Iniguez, told the Willamette Week that the marijuana was found in another student’s backpack, and that student told authorities that Thomas had sold it to him. In court documents, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy J. Williams said Thomas “knowingly and intentionally possessed marijuana.”
Williams’s office did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment. He told told the Willamette Week last month that “we look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process.” Federal prosecutors have declined further comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Marijuana use is fairly common among the nation’s teenagers. In 2015, nearly half of the nation’s 12th-graders had used marijuana at some point in their lives, according to the federal Monitoring the Future survey. But very few of those students have ever faced a criminal conviction for that marijuana use — to say nothing of federal drug charges.
Thomas is likely facing federal charges because the alleged possession took place at the Chemawa Indian School, which is a boarding school for Native American students run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education.
Prosecutors had expected Thomas to plead guilty to the possession charge and enter a six-month treatment program. But at a court appearance in July, his lawyer announced that he would fight the charge and request a jury trial.
It’s a potentially risky move. A guilty verdict could lead to a year-long prison stint and a $1,000 fine. On the other hand, a guilty plea could mean the lifelong burden of a federal drug conviction, which could affect Thomas’s ability to get student loans, find a job, or find a place to live.
The case has outraged advocates for legalization.
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“Why continue to try to ruin people’s lives,” said Russ Belville, founder of the Portland chapter of the pro-marijuana group NORML, to KGW. “Make it tough for this kid to get a job, to be able to apply for college scholarships, to get security clearances, to own a home?”
U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon told KGW that “I don’t want kids using marijuana, but to have the heavy hand of the law in a case like this — when there are so many other much more serious issues — I think is a misallocation of resources.”
Thomas’s case illustrates a concern many drug policy experts have raised for years — that most of the harms associated with marijuana use come not from using marijuana, but from the punishment offenders receive at the hands of the criminal justice system.
As the ACLU detailed in 2013, the burden of that marijuana enforcement has fallen disproportionately on minority communities. Thomas grew up on Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
“There’s absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged,” Portland lawyer Amy Margolis told the Willamette Week. “[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was.”