It was an unusually warm evening for November. I remember because I was standing on the side of the road – wearing capris, a t-shirt, and metal cuffs around my wrists – as I watched my girlfriend be shoved into a police car. What seemed like hours (more like 15 minutes) later, I was in an identical car heading to the same station she was. I turned 18 four days previous, and she was 19. That night, Nov. 25 2014, both mine and Caitlyn Arnold’s lives changed forever.
Per the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2014 arrest data, over 700,000 arrests were made on marijuana-related charges in that year alone. Of that, 88.4% were for simple possession only. That rate leaves us with a marijuana possession arrest being made every 51 seconds throughout 2014.
After spending nearly 10 hours separated, photographed, questioned repeatedly, chained to metal benches in freezing cold rooms, and provided no food or water (save for the sips stolen from the sink after I banged on the window until an officer finally escorted me to the restroom), you would think that we had killed someone or at least almost did. Maybe we stole something expensive, or drove under the influence of alcohol. No, actually – we were both charged with the possession and intent to distribute marijuana. These crimes hold a maximum of one year and five years in jail, respectively.
Seeing Caitlyn for the first time after finally being disconnected from that metal slab of a bench made me realize something – we are now officially partners-in-crime. We both made decisions, separately and collectively, that brought us to that moment in time. More importantly, we both made the decision that the risks of distributing marijuana were ones that we were willing to take – for reasons that I will discuss in more detail later.
Pew Research Center conducted a data analysis in 2014 examining poverty and the federal minimum wage.
Annual minimum-wage earnings for a full-time worker are $15,080. To support one adult and one child would be $16,057. “Full-time” also assumes that you would work at least 40 hours 52 weeks of the year. This is not attainable for most individuals, including myself (a full-time student) and Arnold, who gets a maximum of 30 hours a week at the doctor’s office she works in. As she is studying to further her certifications as an orthodontic assistant, Arnold must also juggle schooling and work hours. It is impossible to ignore why so many individuals, especially those of our generation, are put in situations where doing something illegal is the only way to get by.
“It’s not that I wanted to sell. Sometimes, I regret ever starting,” Arnold told me in a quiet voice. “I was 18 – I really needed the cash in my pocket. I drove a used, older truck because it was all I could afford at the time, so gas was expensive on top of my other bills. Minimum-wage, especially part-time at that, literally couldn’t cut it.”
Arnold was luckily given probation before judgment instead of a felony charge and was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation. Her monthly probation fee was set at $40, so that alone cost her over $700 on top of court costs and legal representation. That puts the total cost of her first arrest at around $5000.
Arnold describes the system as, essentially, a clever trap.
“It’s like, they want you to quit making money illegally, so they punish you with outrageous fees, jail-time, probation, drug tests, etcetera… but they regret to realize that you have to get that money from somewhere,” Arnold detailed. “I didn’t have the money to support myself, and that’s where the cycle begins. So how else would I attain the money to pay the fees, plus my original expenses? It just continues from there.”
It truly does just continue from there. In Sept. 2016, a mere two months before Arnold would finish her probation, we were arrested again. I was arrested mostly as an accessory item to Arnold – it was clear to law enforcement that she was the main individual, but I was definitely involved. They charged me with the standard possession with intent but they also went for a criminal conspiracy charge, due to my long history with Arnold.
In a twist of fate, the state’s attorney offered Arnold a plea deal that included of all my charges being dropped plus all of hers except possession, if she did 30 days in jail and 3 years of probation. Arnold’s short time in jail nearly made her lose her job. If she had no formal job for her on the outside, what would she have been relying on to support her upon her return? Selling.
“Finding out that I was on the brink of losing the job I’ve had and loved for years was a huge breaking point for me,” Arnold expressed. “I knew that if I lost that, there was no hope in me ever exiting this lifestyle.”
As Arnold, who turns 22 in less than two months, works to pay back her family for legal expenses (over $8000 worth for her second arrest) she has made the difficult decision to continue said lifestyle for the time being.
“It really wasn’t much of a decision at all,” she corrects me. “I have to do what I have to do. I don’t smoke anymore, because of probation, but the money is what keeps me around. It’s really that simple.”
Per the Drug Policy Alliance, the United States spends more than $51 billion annually on the war on drugs. More than 200,000 students have lost federal financial aid because of a drug conviction. When this much of the economy is dedicated to ruining lives over small and non-violent offenses, there is a problem. Violent offenders are consistently given lesser offenses than those involved in marijuana-related charges despite repeatedly being proven unharmful and even medicinal.
Society does not realize that a lot of people who commit crimes like this commit them out of desperation. It is more than just looking for a quick fix or an easy way out – it is a lifestyle that traps you. The war on drugs may not be a literal war, but it is costing lives.