(This is the first column of a two-part series on the War on Drugs.)
Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2008, my ex-wife called to inform me that our 17 year old son had been arrested the day prior on drug possession charges. He spent the night in jail.
On Monday, he had been called into the school Principal’s office to meet with the principal, his wrestling coach, the on-campus police officer and his senior advisor. The officer read him his Miranda Rights, they frisked him and found marihuana on his possession, and they asked him what he intended to do with the drugs. He replied he intended to sell it to a classmate. They arrested him and confiscated the three grams of weed.
With that they obtained a search warrant, searched his room and found a digital scale, rolling papers, plastic bags and $400 in cash. The evidence was solid. They got the contraband, and he had confessed to committing School Zone Drug Violations. The minimum mandatory sentence for a SCHOOLPARK (the official designation of a school-drug crime) violation is two years in prison.
On Wednesday, he was expelled from high school and came to live with me. We needed to regroup. Fortunately, I had strong relationship with the high school faculty and administrators prior to this, and this became instrumental to his recovery and readmission to high school later.
The most pressing problem was addressing his guilt selling marijuana in a school. This was a serious crime for which he would convicted as an adult, even though he wasn’t. Worse, he had committed these crimes in the white upscale community of Lexington, Massachusetts, where drug use and deniability is ubiquitous but arrests are scant.
We needed to address the problem dually, from personal and legal standpoints. It was critical he break all damaging relationships with students and adult drug dealers. It was also crucial he stay in school. Deprogramming was excruciating. We had frequent fierce fights, which got physical at times. But his life was on the line. We got him in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and he got active enough he began bringing fellow students to the meetings.
I negotiated with the school to arrange for personal tutors to keep him abreast of his studies during these travails. Some of the tutors were truly inspired. One engaged him in math studies utilizing a favorite band, Tool, to demonstrate Fibonacci sequences with the song Lateralus.
We needed to lawyer him up. A family friend knew a criminal attorney who was a former District Attorney and well networked. He also lived the hardship of drug abuse and alcoholism and engaged with my son on that level as well. And yes, he knew the prosecutor and the judge. While the law wasn’t skirted, a mandatory prison sentence was avoided with a legal tactical break out of the charges to probation.
The probation officer we were assigned was deeply caring of his plight. Every session was preceded by vigorous struggle and rebelliousness, until one day the officer lifted his finger and said to my son, “I have been a probation officer for over 20 years. I have worked thousands of cases. Do you know how many parents have come along with their sons to meet with the probation officer?” Silence. “None! Not one! You should be grateful you are not abandoned, but loved by your parents!”
It was a turning point in our struggles. The probation officer demanded to see evidence of my son working. As the probation officer wryly noted, “You proved yourself to be a successful entrepreneur with marihuana…perhaps you can turn that talent toward more useful endeavors?” My son got a job a CVS. He worked full time, plus overtime, and then went to a local café.
Meanwhile, I went almost daily to the high school to get him re-enrolled. They initially refused, saying he deserved permanent expulsion. I countered with questions, such as, “You have an opportunity to turn a kid around, and you will choose to abandon him instead?”
Finally they relented with a counter guarantee from me that he would successfully complete probation, and he would never do one violation of any kind for anything ever. Agreed. He had to stay back a year, but he graduated. At graduation, many stories were told of various students who excelled in this or that, but for me I only thought of my son who struggled with almost total ruination of his life.
He is now in college while working full time. His girlfriend is also working full time as a counselor in a homeless shelter while attending college.
Last week, President Barak Obama commuted the lengthy prison sentences for eight men convicted of non-violent crack cocaine offenses. An additional 8,000 inmates languish imprisoned indefinitely for similar offenses. Nine out of 10 of them are black. As for my son, had he been black, had he not had family with more than $10,000 to hire a lawyer, and had they not had the corresponding social network to get him back on track, he would have been just become another number, just another prisoner of over million who’s lives were destroyed by draconian drug laws.