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Culture » Smoke Signals

Think a Pot Prosecution Can't Happen to You? Think Again.



Cannabis prosecutions of two Warm Springs tribal members shed light on a double standard in the state.

Native Americans have been subject to centuries of discrimination and mistreatment in the United States—and unfortunately, that legacy lives on in today's cannabis laws. Cases in point: two recent prosecutions of Central Oregon tribal members.

According to federal law, the people of the Warm Springs tribe are citizens of a "sovereign nation," meaning they have the right to govern themselves. Back in December 2015, Warm Springs citizens voted to legalize growing, possessing, and selling cannabis in their nation. But despite the vote, cannabis remains illegal on the Warm Springs Reservation under federal law.

Confusing? You bet. Many legal experts agree that so-called "Indian" law is riddled with contradictions and is often used by federal officials to prevent Native American tribes from carrying out the will of their members.

Right now, two members of the Warm Springs nation are facing criminal prosecution for cannabis-related activities that, for Oregonians living away from federal land, probably would not have resulted in a criminal charge. The first case is that of former Warm Springs police sergeant Lonny McEwan, who is accused of attempting to sell an ounce of cannabis to an undercover FBI agent.

The alleged crime occurred on the Warm Springs Reservation, that sovereign nation where people have decided that selling cannabis is not a criminal act. Unfortunately for McEwan, the Warm Springs' illusory sovereignty will not spare him from prosecution in federal court and, possibly, the stain of a federal criminal conviction.

At the young age of 19, Devontre Thomas is in a similar situation. Last year, Thomas was a student at Chemawa Indian School in Salem when one of his classmates alleged that the 1 gram of cannabis found in his backpack was supplied by Thomas. Now, Thomas is looking at the possibility of one year in jail, as well as being ineligible for federal student loans and other government aid. And that's not to mention the great stigma in employment consideration he could face—all for a single joint's worth of cannabis. This is exactly the type of injustice Oregon voters fought against by electing to legalize cannabis during the 2014 election.

U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams is prosecuting Thomas, who is the first person to be charged with a cannabis crime in Oregon in nearly five years. Neither the state nor the Warm Springs tribe had jurisdiction over the alleged crime, so it fell to federal prosecutors to focus on that alleged crime of distribution of cannabis to minors.

It's very unlikely that any other, non-Native teenager in Oregon would be prosecuted by federal officials, and the state and Warm Springs' crimes of cannabis possession no longer exist. Unfortunately though, the ethics rules applying to Oregon lawyers do not stop federal officials from prosecuting these individuals.

Oregon's U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer has called the prosecution a "deplorable" and "deeply troubling" misallocation of resources, but he's as powerless as anyone else to stop it. If convicted, McEwan and Thomas would have to rely on the President for a pardon. And while our current commander in chief admits to smoking pot in his youth, the Donald or Hillary might not be quite so understanding.

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