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. 

Sadly, Joe passed away from his battle of Colon Cancer in May, 2019

“Joe was the very first person to sign up for our project.He had already had stage 4 colon cancer when he signed up at the end of 2018 and he passed away in May 2019. The last time I had talked to him was April. It was a shock to me when I found out…not until July because the Virginia Attorney General’s office had taken notice of his story above all the others and wanted me to ask him for a quote. By that time, his phone number had been recycled to someone else and I didn’t know my many texts and calls had been going to a stranger until they finally answered that I had the wrong number. Then I saw the post above on FB about his passing. I tell this, because his story, and voice will forever haunt me. He believed in this cause so much to immediately sign up forour project as soon as I had put it out there…before I even realized the potential. 

All the other stories had gained much more attention because of their unique qualities, but his is like the majority of marijuana criminalization stories and pretty plain. Age 19 and unaware of the lifetime consequences he’d face until his death at age 43. But I was so excited that he finally was going to get noticed and I dreamed of restoring his record because Virginia is moving quickly into reforming marijuana laws. So, now Virginia has a medical cannabis program about to open and decriminalization was passed all after his death. He never got to see that happen. I can only guess that he knew his time was short and wanted to help others with his story.”

Tamara Netzel


Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law

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