Civil Liberties

How a Single Oxycontin Pill Nearly Ruined One Man's Life

Jail may be the worst thing that can happen to a drug offender, but it's not the only thing.


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. 

* * *

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.

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."

* * *

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.