~photo by Foster-Gray Photography~

Joe, now age 43, was caught with half an ounce of cannabis at age 19 and the cruel consequences have followed him ever since.

Many of the kids Joe knew at age 19 smoked cannabis like he did back then. But one of these kids was caught, charged, then falsely informed police that Joe was his supplier.  “I don’t know why he did that. We were kids and I guess this is what kids do. He knew I was not a dealer, but I guess he was convinced if he said I was selling, then it would be better for him,”Joe recalled.

It was a devastating and embarrassing experience for Joe and his parents. They helped him pay for the lawyer he needed and they stood by him through the process. He was convicted of conspiracy to distribute more than one-half ounce which is a felony. Joe had barely over a half ounce on him when he was caught, but it was only for his personal use. He was not dealing.It didn’t matter. As this qualified for the heavier charge. But Joe remembered his lawyer telling him “If I would plead guilty, they would agree to reduce the charges to misdemeanors.” He was told that in a few years, the charges would be off his record and he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. He stopped using cannabis and hadn’t touched it since he was caught.

Joe had moved on, went to college, and was eager to put the bad experience behind him. A couple years went by and he applied for a job with his parks and recreation department as a swimming instructor. On his application, he did not disclose his conviction. He thought the charges would be off of his record like he was told by his lawyer. Even though he was well qualified for the job, and had a clean criminal record otherwise, he was turned down for only one reason; for failing to disclose his conviction. If he had written on the application about his conviction, he would have gotten hired.

A few years later, after graduating from college pursuing his education degree, Joe became a preschool teacher. He had enjoyed working 7 years in one Virginia school district in Virginia Beach when he wanted to make a move to a neighboring school district in Portsmouth. This time, just like he did for his current job as a teacher, he made sure to disclose his one and only possession conviction over ten years prior. It was not a problem when he applied for his current job. He had gotten this job by being honest about his past as long as he acknowledged it happened to his employer.

This plan seemed to work for him as he was told he would get the new job in Portsmouth. Joe was relieved when he heard the new school had hired him and he could resign from his current teaching position. Later, he would find out that this was not the case. The new school district in Portsmouth changed their mind and did not give him the teaching position they promised citing the existence of the conviction which happened over 10 years ago as the reason.

One thing most people don’t recognize about possession convictions like this is that it doesn’t stop with that conviction. It closes doors in front of you as you try to lead the reformed life the law is intended to promote. People face huge legal bills and fines, pay them, serve their sentences, and try to move on, but cannot seem to get beyond it. They have a harder time getting loans, apartments, and good paying jobs just from one offense, even though they’ve paid for that one offense in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For many, the consequences are so tough that people are forced to give up trying to lead the desired reformed life.

Joe was devastated once again from the incident that happened years ago when he was 19 years old, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet. He was motivated to look into why the conviction was still showing up on his record many years later. Evidently, the charge did disappear from only part of his record, but it depended on what type of background check is done. His conviction is still on record if a state police background check is done, but not on any other background checks.

He even wrote to Governor McDonnell asking to get it expunged from his record, but was denied. He was unemployed and still facing tough choices because of what happened when he was 19 years old. He knew he needed to go another direction than to pursue more jobs in education. So, by the suggestion of a friend, he pursued a career as a merchant seaman. It would be a job he grew to be successful in and perhaps finally he had gotten away from the shadow of his conviction.

Joe worked as a merchant seaman for several years before he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was able to treat his cancer with conventional medicine including chemotherapy and returned to his work thinking his cancer was in remission. Then not long after, his colon cancer came back, however now it had transitioned into stage 4 and the cancer had spread to other organs. Joe still lives in Norfolk spending his time fighting his cancer with an unknown prognosis.

It is not difficult to find stories like Joe’s where a cannabis possession conviction has ruined life plans and we wonder what could have been if only cannabis was legal. But, one also has to wonder how life could be different for Joe now if even full therapeutic-strength medical cannabis was legal in Virginia due to growing evidence of anti-tumor properties of THC in cannabis.

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