Over the last several years, media outlets have reported hundreds of horror stories about Florida's prescription drug epidemic. News consumers have been treated to stories about crooked doctors, shady pharmacists, and pill-popping addicts with violent tendencies and bad parenting skills. But as is so often the case with drug war coverage, there's more to the story than that.
There are nonviolent offenders who aren't addicts, or dealers, or scammers. You don't hear their stories from drug warriors, because they can't be used to bolster the case for prohibition. You also don't hear their stories from bipartisan drug policy reformers, because these people don't need addiction recovery treatment. They don't really need anything at all.
Nevertheless, many of these people have had their lives turned upside down in the name of public safety and public health, and are worse off for it, financially and emotionally. We asked Reason magazine's Facebook followers to tell us if they knew someone who had been put through the wringer after being caught with a small amount of drugs. We promised anonymity, so long as we could verify their claims. A man who we'll call "James" reached out to us. This is his story.
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James was pulled over for speeding in 2006 in Vero Beach, Florida while driving back to his home in Jacksonville after a concert. The officer who pulled him over said the car smelled like marijuana, and asked to conduct a search. James agreed, because neither he nor his passenger had been using drugs. When his passenger was found to be in possession of a pipe and several screens (but no marijuana), the officer searched James. His pockets were empty save for a single Oxycontin pill. James told the officer he received the pill from a friend at the concert, but that he had never tried Oxycontin, and intended to give it away.
A second officer was called to the scene. James' passenger was arrested for possession of paraphernalia, and James was arrested for illegal possession of a prescription narcotic.
The next morning, James' mother drove to Indian River County to plead for a lightening of her son's bond. She told the judge that James, then 24, was both a full-time graduate student at the University of North Florida and a full-time stock broker with Merrill Lynch. James' lawyer advised him to plead no-contest, saying he would likely get probation and then have his record expunged.
"After being assured that the penalty would be light," James told Reason in an email, "it turned into a bigger ordeal than I could ever imagine."
The judge who heard James' case accepted the no-contest plea. Then he began stacking on penalties.
Despite having no criminal record and never having taken Oxycontin, James was required to attend two Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week for an entire year, and 15 weekend-long state-run drug classes (the latter he was required to pay for). Despite the fact that he was going to school at night for his MBA, James was given a curfew, and had to be inside his own home between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day of the week, for the entire year. As a final punishment, the judge instructed James to immediately report his arrest to his employer, and to let his probation officer know when he had done so.
With his case settled, James returned to Jacksonville and told his boss at Merrill Lynch what happened. His supervisor told him not to worry. A week later, he was instructed to modify his broker's license to reflect that he'd pled no-contest to drug possession. This is both a federal and a state-level requirement, generally meant to protect investors. It ended up ruining James's career. The modification to his license triggered an internal warning at Merrill Lynch. The firm placed him on paid leave for two weeks, and then fired him.
Once James's probation officer found out he'd been let go, she required him to bring with him to their meetings a list of every job for which he'd applied since they last met. His probation officer then called each and every company's HR department to verify that James had actually applied.
"I am sure once the HR department at my prospective job talked to her, that my resume was thrown away," James wrote in an email.
It took James a month to find a new job, but it wasn't with a financial firm. Instead, he was hired on as a short order cook by a woman had opened a restaurant after an underage drinking charge prevented her from teaching.