Devontre Thomas, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, turned 19 in March. He graduated from the Chemawa Indian School in May. He is working two jobs this summer and plans to go to college in the fall to study environmental sciences.
But Thomas’s plans almost went up in smoke in April when the federal government charged him with misdemeanor possession of 1 gram of marijuana. If convicted, Thomas would have faced up to a year in prison, a fine of up to $1,000 and possible loss of federal student loans and housing assistance. The incident, during which Thomas allegedly bought 1 gram of marijuana from another student for $20, took place more than a year before Thomas was charged.
According to his attorney, Ruben Iniguez, a federal public defender in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon, Thomas is “a very courteous, articulate, intelligent young man. I think at the age of 19 I didn’t really have a plan for what I was going to do with my life. But he already knows what his interests are, why he should go to school and what he wants to study. I’m impressed.”
Oregon is a PL-280 state—where the state rather than the federal government has jurisdiction over crimes occurring on Indian reservations—for some of its nine tribes, though not for Warm Springs, where the federal government has jurisdiction. But why a U.S. Attorney would charge a promising student with a minor drug offense, when so often the federal government does not have the resources to prosecute rape, domestic violence and child abuse on Indian reservations, is perplexing to many.
One answer might be the Cole Memorandum, a statement of federal policy regarding marijuana possession in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational weed. The memorandum offers guidance to federal prosecutors, noting that “Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime.” In the interests of using resources in the most effective way, the memorandum lists several areas where the government will focus its law enforcement efforts. The first of these is preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.
There was a minor involved here, but it wasn’t Thomas, who was 18 in March 2015. The person who sold the marijuana to Thomas was, Iniguez says, a minor who he believes was turned over to the state for prosecution. “Although I’m not certain,” says Iniguez, “I believe he was charged with distribution of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school.”
Regarding Thomas and the location of the alleged incident, Iniguez says, “Typically when the offender is under 21 years [and the offense takes place on federal land, such as] a U.S. national park or Forest Service property, possession of marijuana would usually result in a civil violation. It’s an infraction, so you can be subject to a monetary penalty, a fine. Why they decided to bring an actual criminal charge is beyond me.”
Whatever the reason for the initial charge, three members of the Oregon Congressional delegation were among those who thought the federal government was overzealous.
Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer wrote to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Billy J. Williams and requested “a full list of all marijuana possession crimes pursued by your office since 2014.”
The letter gave Iniguez an opening to negotiate a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s office whereby the charge against Thomas would be dismissed in 60 days if he met two conditions. One is that he follow the law and the second is that he work or go to school.
Iniguez filed a motion to have Thomas’s trial moved from September to mid-October, at which point the 60 days will have expired, and the charge against Thomas will presumably be dismissed.
A promising young man will then be free to pursue his education after experiencing a harrowing and baffling six months living in the shadow of a federal charge that could have destroyed his future.
The Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon had not returned calls by press time.