In an utterly bizarre case reported last week by Oregon’s Willamette Week, the federal government is taking the almost unheard of move of prosecuting an individual for possession of a small amount of cannabis. Making it all the more perverse, this is happening in Oregon, which legalized recreational cannabis by popular vote last year. More perverse still, the targeted individual is a Native American youth—who may face one year in prison for possession of just about enough herb to roll a fat joint.
In April, the U.S. attorney for Oregon filed a misdemeanor charge against Devontre Thomas for possessing “about a gram” of cannabis, according to his public defender Ruben Iniguez. A conviction could mean a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Worse, federal charges can’t be vacated, so Thomas could be denied federal student loans, public housing and government aid for the rest of his life.
The catch seems to be that Thomas got popped at Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in Salem, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, a federal agency. But local rights watchdogs say the move still goes against federal policy.
“I can’t figure out why they are going after this youth. It literally makes no sense,” Mat dos Santos, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told the Guardian. “I find it really hard to believe this should merit the concern of the U.S. attorney. It’s really heartbreaking.”
The details remain murky. Thomas, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, did not actually have cannabis on him at the school, but was suspected in a $20 sale of weed—which took place a year before charges were actually brought.
“I’ve never seen a case like this in my entire time practicing in federal court,” Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland criminal defense lawyer, told the Willamette Week. “It’s outlandish.”
Under Oregon’s legalization law, users must be at least 21, and Thomas is only 19. But, if anything, Thomas’ youth makes this case even more puzzling for a federal administration that is ostensibly concerned with racial justice.
Historically, black residents in Oregon have been about twice as likely to be cited or arrested for cannabis as white folks, according to the ACLU. Racial disparities in arrests for public use have continued even in states that have legalized, like Colorado. Some cannabis law reform efforts are being designed with an effort to address this ongoing problem. By singling out a Native American youth like this, the feds are not exactly helping.