Second-hand Smoke

Collateral Damage Is Forever

Like President Clinton, Tailpipe never inhaled. Emissions dispensers like Tailpipe only exhale, of course. But at least two presidents (including the incumbent) and a slew of presidential aspirants and politicians of all stripes have at one time or another touched joints to their lips, an act that continues to be considered in many parts of the country so reprehensible that it should be punished with jail time.

It´s a piece of judicial dissonance that will probably continue to be debated until marijuana is decriminalized across the land (don´t hold your breath, inhalers). What rarely gets discussed, though, is the collateral punishments that come after a citizen is busted with pot, even with a small amount.

After you´ve been adjudicated as having had marijuana in your possession and after you satisfy the terms of whatever sentence a judge imposes (in this state, up to a year for possession of less than 20 grams), that´s the end of it, right? You get on with your life, no matter how much it may have been disrupted by a stay in the county jail, to say nothing of the fines and legal fees.

Mr. Marijuana looks pretty harmless compared to Mr. Heroin
Mr. Marijuana looks pretty harmless compared to Mr. Heroin

Not so fast. Marijuana is a rap that keeps on giving. And giving and giving. Depending upon the state you live in, it can transform your life and nowhere more so than in Florida.

California lawyer Richard Glen Boire, with funding from the Marijuana Policy Project, has analyzed the ¨collateral sanctions¨ state by state, finding a hodgepodge of secondary consequences for pot offenses. Florida is by far the most severe in the way it treats marijuana users.

Boire says that he and other researchers charted all the possible sanctions, then ranked the severity with which they´re administered. ¨Then we´d rate them from zero, those having no effect, to five. In rare cases, we rated a sanction with a six.¨

Not much sunshine for pot offenders in the Sunshine State, the numbers show. This is confirmed by criminal defense lawyers, who say Floridians who have been adjudicated as marijuana possessors tend to become the state´s pariahs, a class of untouchables who can be denied employment or civil rights. The post-judicial punishments range from automatically losing your driver´s license for a year to being denied educational aid or an occupational license to being barred from adopting a child. And forget about finding a job: Those pot busts jump out from background checks like animated ferrets.

Stanley James ¨Stosh¨ Klos is a 24-year-old graduate in business marketing from a west coast university. He says he started smoking pot in Georgia as a teenager and got busted a number of times in both his home state and Florida. ¨It was the height of the rave movement,¨ he says. ¨You smoked dime bags.¨ His most recent arrest was two years ago.

¨I finally got my life together,¨ he says. ¨But it´s hard to find a job or any sort of stable career. When they do background checks, they don´t look too highly at that sort of thing.¨ Klos says he was dismissed from a maintenance job at his own university after his employers checked his background. ¨I´ve been laying tile, working on home remodels.¨ He says he has been denied a real estate license and a financial services license, as well as employment in those fields. ¨It´s with you all the time,¨ he says, referring to the drug offenses.

As for his troubles in getting certification, Florida actually rates a six in Boire´s analysis, for the state´s denial of professional licenses for marijuana felons (being in possession of more than 20 grams).

Broward lawyers say the sanctions in this state tend to be harsher than those for violent felonies.

¨If I murder you, I don´t necessarily lose my driver´s license,¨ says Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. ¨But if I smoke a joint, I do.¨

The loss of the driver´s license for pot misdemeanors is automatic, even when the offense is on a nondriving bust.

Why the Draconian treatment?

Boire thinks it´s the cumulative effects of legislators looking for high-profile issues on which to take a stand. ¨There´s no grand narrative there,¨ he says. ¨It´s more of a piece-by-piece thing. Before terrorism, the big thing was the war on drugs. If you´re a drug dealer, we´re going to come down hard on you.´ Until recently, nobody was taking a rational look at what the laws mean for somebody who was doing something relatively minor.¨

But Finkelstein says it´s a Florida thing: ¨We´ve really got two states here. North of Palm Beach County, it´s the Deep South. Our legislature is more akin to the thinking of Mississippi and Alabama than New York or New Jersey... To my way of thinking, the legislature is controlled by a Deep Southern cracker mentality. They think they´re punishing all the rich, liberal New York Jews in South Florida. In reality, marijuana use is rampant in Central and Northern Florida.¨

In the meantime, the criminal justice system strains to keep up with minor drug busts.

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