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The humiliation didn't end there. Twice a week, he sat in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, despite not being addicted—or even recreationally using—narcotics. At his state-run drug class, he listened to a facilitator warn against the dangers of drinking BC Powder and Coca Cola, watched Meg Ryan fall in love with Tom Hanks over and over ("three of my 15 weekends were spent watching movies," he says), and was frequently told, along with other participants, that if they were going to test positive for drugs, to just let the facilitator know. For $200, they could re-enroll in the state's drug course without their probation officers finding out.
"Later," says James, "I was told that the guy who collected our money every week for treatment was fired for doing cocaine in the back room."
All of this was supposed to be temporary. James hoped that after 12 months, his record would be wiped, and he could find his way back into the finance industry.
He was wrong. While his probation officer told James that he could break curfew if he was working late (and only then), she didn't tell him that he needed permission from the judge do so. This led to him being charged with violating his probation, and the extension of his punishment until March 2008. And those two years were more than enough time for every third-party private background-check company in the state to register him as having pled no contest to a possession charge.
Thanks to the records maintained by those third-party companies, he had trouble finding a new place to live, even after his record with the state had been expunged. "I lost out on at least five jobs as a direct result of having this on my record, even though it is not technically on my record," James says. "I even relocated for jobs just to have them notify me the day before or even after two weeks of training that they could not hire me due to this."
One insurance firm agreed to hire James if he could present an official copy of his criminal record that explained the circumstances of his arrest. "When I tried to explain to them that it was expunged," James says, and thus didn't exist, they said it was company policy. "A few weeks later, someone from HR called and said, 'We understand if you think this is not worth your time.'"
The experience has changed not just James's life, but his thinking about drug policy.
"I could really see how someone could get caught 'in the system' and have a stigma attached to them, and, for people with, say, a high school diploma, why they would just resort to drug dealing, or worse, because the government prevented their ability to find a job due to this," James said.
"It's sad that the government creates this group of 'drug offenders' who are not harming anyone, be it pot smokers or pill poppers, and then indirectly prevents them from getting jobs. Once you get something like this on your record, it is either start your own business or become under-employed."
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Today, James is happily married (he met his wife while working at the restaurant), has a child, and is studying for a second graduate degree. He's also out of the kitchen, but says he is still underemployed as a result of his arrest six years ago.
As horrifying as the last six years of James's life have been, an actual Oxycontin addict would be lucky to have his fate: In Florida, the possession of just seven prescription pain pills (a hardcore user can go through that many before lunch) qualifies as drug trafficking, and comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of three years.
I asked Greg Newburn, director of the Florida chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, what would happen if James had been caught with a single pill today, at the height of hysteria over prescription pill abuse.
"He probably wouldn't be facing any mandatory sentence for just one pill," Newburn said. "More than likely he'd probably be charged with possession of a controlled substance, which is a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a level 3 offense under the Criminal Punishment Code. Assuming no priors, that only scores a 16, so no prison time would be required, but the judge could still give up to five years," Newburn said.
Considering what a judge could have done to him, James got off pretty easy. But six years later, it doesn't feel that way at all.