There hasn't been a federal pot possession case in Oregon since 2011.
So why is a 19 year old being charged now?
Portland, Ore. -- Devontre Thomas has big plans for the future. The 19 year old just graduated from Chemawa Indian School in Salem. He’s headed to college this fall.
But hanging over his head is a low-level marijuana case.
The U.S. Department of Justice is charging the Oregon teenager with one count of marijuana possession -- a misdemeanor.
“It’s a big deal when it comes to federal,” said Thomas. “That’s what scares me about it.”
The case illustrates how the federal government continues to prosecute some low-level marijuana offenses, including in states like Oregon, where voters legalized pot.
“It makes me wonder if we’ve caught all the terrorists, rapists and criminals that broke Wall Street,” said Russ Belville, founder of Portland NORML. “We have time to go after a 19 year old with possession of marijuana?”
Last year, federal prosecutors charged 2,349 people with marijuana possession in the United States, according to federal court data.
Prior to Devontre Thomas, there hadn’t been a federal marijuana possession case in Oregon since 2011.
Federal prosecutors won’t say why they decided to go after the Oregon teenager. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Portland declined to comment “given this is a pending matter.”
The one-page court document filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Martin reads, “On or about March 24, 2015, in the District of Oregon, defendant Devontre James Thomas knowing and intentionally possessed marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance.”
The case was filed on April 7, 2016, roughly one year after the alleged crime.
“It’s something I’ve got to deal with and keep pushing forward,” said Thomas. “I’ve got to face the consequences for what I did.”
Thomas didn’t have any weed in his possession according to his lawyer, but he did admit paying another teenager $20 for some marijuana.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Ruben Iniguez says investigators used the words “fragments,” “debris” and “remnants” to describe what they found on one of Thomas’ friends. It’s not clear if that teenager was charged.
Under federal law, it doesn’t matter how much marijuana a person is carrying. Possession of any amount of pot is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Most federal marijuana possession cases don’t result in prison time, but they can leave a mark on a person’s record.
“Why continue to try to ruin people’s lives,” asked Belville, the pro-marijuana advocate. “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?”
On August 29, 2013, former Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued guidance to all U.S. Attorneys regarding marijuana enforcement. In essence, the Cole Memo serves as a playbook for federal prosecutors dealing with marijuana cases.
The Cole Memo laid out eight priorities important to the federal government. Number one on the list: “Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.”
Under Oregon law, Thomas could not legally have marijuana because of his age. It’s only legal for adults 21 and over to possess and use recreational pot.
"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," said Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer. “I find it deeply troubling."
Devontre Thomas has faced some unique challenges in his life.
“I’m Native American. I grew up on the Warm Springs reservation,” explained Thomas.
But now this soft-spoken 19 year old is confronted by the federal government charging him with misdemeanor marijuana possession.
“That’s what scares me,” said Thomas. “Stuff like that hanging over your head.”
Published May 2, 2016