Charges dropped for Native American teen facing prison over gram of weed
The possible harsh sentence over such a small quantity of marijuana sparked vocal concern, and teen’s defender says ‘it’s about time’ charges were dropped.
Prosecutors in Oregon have agreed to drop federal charges against a Native American teenager who faced up to a year in prison for possession of about one gram of marijuana, after the state’s US senators and a congressman sent a letter of concern.
Devontre Thomas, 19, entered into a pretrial diversion agreement with the government, according to a document filed Thursday in federal court. Under the terms of the agreement, the government will dismiss the pending charge if Thomas obeys all laws and remains at work or in school for the next 60 days.
“It’s about time,” said Ruben Iñiguez, the federal public defender representing Thomas, of the agreement.
“I hope sincerely that other minors or even adults in our state – where marijuana is both recreationally and medically legal – don’t have to face this sort of persecution by the federal government for such a minor quantity of what’s now legal medicine.”
In Oregon, adults 21 and older are legally allowed to purchase and possess cannabis and are allowed to carry one ounce (which is about 28 grams). However, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, making prosecutions such as Thomas’ possible, though highly unusual.
The US attorney’s decision to pursue a misdemeanor charge against Thomas, first reported by the Willamette Week, had prompted growing outrage.
On Wednesday, senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and representative Earl Blumenauer, all of Oregon, released a letter to US attorney Billy Williams that expressed concern with the prosecutor’s priorities on drug prosecutions:
“With heroin, methamphetamines, and opioids causing widespread harm to people across the state, your office has substantial drug enforcement priorities, other than the prosecution of simple marijuana possession crimes … Your office retains prosecutorial discretion in expending scarce legal resources in pursuit of those priorities that will make the biggest difference to Oregonians.”
The representatives also demanded that Williams produce a list of all marijuana possession prosecutions pursued by his office since 2014.
The US attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The misdemeanor charge stemmed from a March 2015 incident at Chemawa Indian school, a boarding school operated by the federal bureau of Indian education. But Iñiguez said that the prosecution was not related to the fact that the alleged crime took place on land under federal jurisdiction.
Usually low-level marijuana possession charges that take place under federal jurisdiction – for example, in US Forest Service land – are treated as civil violations, and violators may be subject to fines, Iñiguez said.
But in this case, “they just brought a straightforward criminal charge for possession of marijuana, and I’ve never seen that before,” he said.
“While I am pleased to see the US attorney drop the charges in the case of 19-year-old Devontre Thomas, I’m still concerned that this office thought it was worth prosecuting in the first place,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “My hope is that this sets a precedent that federal prosecutors should not be wasting time and resources on low level marijuana crimes.”
Iñiguez said that Thomas, who is a member of the Warm Springs tribe, was “pleased to have it go away”.
“He was concerned that it would mar his record and affect his future,” Iñiguez said. “It’s great that it’s going away, but it’s rather ridiculous that it was brought in the first place.”