What illegal drug use can cost you

What illegal drug use can cost you


What illegal drug use can cost you

The Internet makes background checks a snap, so you can’t hide. And even a misdemeanor drug conviction can have lifetime consequences and limit your career choices.
– By Karen Aho

A joint. A tab of Ecstasy. A ride in a cocaine user’s car. It doesn’t take much to be convicted of a drug offense.

And the fine, jail time and probation are the least of your worries. It’s your future that’s really in trouble.

Say goodbye to practicing law. Say hello to roadblocks toward a career in health care, education or transportation.

“It’s like gum you can’t get off your shoe,” said Roy Jay, executive director of Project Clean Slate, an Oregon nonprofit that helps people clear their records.

Go to rent an apartment, get a government loan or apply for graduate school and there’s that ubiquitous box: “Have you ever been convicted . . . ?” Even volunteering at the town library or helping out on a child’s field trip can get iffy.

“There are serious, serious economic effects for the person who gets arrested for marijuana or other drugs,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There are lost-opportunity costs.”

It’s here: the age of the universal criminal background check, where it is just about impossible to leave that youthful indiscretion behind on the courthouse steps. And the costs to the individual — financial and otherwise — are mounting.

You won’t see these so-called collateral consequences spelled out in 6-foot letters on anti-drug billboards. To the contrary, these are known as the silent or invisible punishments, in part because judges and lawyers aren’t required to inform people during plea deals. (You can find out how your state treats people with criminal convictions here.)

“Those people are terrified. It’s like the sky is falling in on them. They don’t want to go to jail,” said Richard Boire, a lawyer who wrote a report on the collateral sanctions of marijuana convictions. “They just want to get out of there as quickly as possible.”

“Now they’ve done their probation, and they’re stuck in a world they can’t get out of.”

Everybody’s checking

For $100, Employment Screening Resources, one of scores of background-checking companies, will check each jurisdiction where someone lived during the past seven years. Business is booming, with 25% growth each of the last three years.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any company these days, save a mom-and-pop, that doesn’t do criminal-records checks,” said Jared Callahan, director of client services.

State licensing boards can prohibit drug offenders from working in health care, education and other fields. Negligent-hiring lawsuits, with their hefty jury awards, keep other industries on edge about putting anyone with a whiff of risk behind the wheel, near money or around the public.

“If one of those people you hire goes out and does something awful, there’s no end to your liability,” said Larry Henry, an employment lawyer with Boone, Smith, in Oklahoma.

“It also gets down to bottom-line considerations: Are they going to be absent more? Are they going to have more medical problems? Are they going to be a rule follower?”

Growing fears

Since 9/11, when Americans became hyperconscious about knowing exactly who was working where, security fears have ballooned, screeners say.

Federal law does offer protection. Employers must consider the date and nature of a person’s offense and whether it is relevant to the job. But in some cases a background report might only say “conviction” and “controlled substance,” letting one imagine the worst.

“You take out the health-care industry, you can’t drive, you can’t work with machinery, you’re not going to be able to work with money — there’s probably not a whole lot of options left,” said John McCullough, a lawyer with the Council on Crime and Justice, in Minnesota.

The Peace Corps is out, too, at least for a year after any drug incident — conviction or not — when applicants are ineligible. After that the record is merely tarnished beside a giant stack of qualified applicants.

People with minor drug convictions lose in a lot of other ways:

Student loans: The Higher Education Act makes students convicted of any drug offense — even possession of one marijuana joint — ineligible for federal financial aid, grants or work study. It does not apply to other types of offenses, including murder or rape. Since the law took effect in 2000, more than 200,000 students have lost aid.

In 2006, the law was revised to apply only to students convicted while receiving aid. They can also have their benefits restored later.

The Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the law on the grounds that it constitutes double jeopardy, punishing people again after court.

“The law has the effect of deterring education, not deterring drug use,” said ACLU attorney Adam Wolf.

Housing: Landlords also check criminal records and are justified in denying tenants with a drug conviction. Leases can permit owners to evict a tenant for illegal drug use on the grounds. Some universities give students 48 hours to get out of their dorm after a drug violation.

Federal money: The 1990 Denial of Federal Benefits Program allows judges to deny drug offenders federal grants, contracts and licenses. However, judges only use the provision in two out of a thousand cases, affecting about 600 people a year in federal courts.

The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 makes felony drug offenders subject to a lifetime ban on cash assistance and food stamps. States can opt out, however, and most limit this ban.

Adoption and foster care: The Adoption and SafeFamilies Act of 1997 recommends that states bar people with a felony drug conviction from adoption or foster care for five years. A small number of states, however, disqualify anyone with a criminal record.

Voting rights: Felony disenfranchisement laws have eased in recent years. Only two states, Kentucky and Virginia, permanently deny felons the vote. For more details, see this map of state disenfranchisement laws (.pdf file).

Citizenship: A drug offense is considered a crime of moral turpitude, which for noncitizens is grounds for deportation.

The real costs

More than 800,000 marijuana arrests were made in 2006, according to the FBI.

Kraig Selken, 23, was a junior at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., when he and two housemates were arrested for possessing a combined three-quarters of an ounce. Selken got 60 days in jail with 57 suspended for the misdemeanor and paid $400 in fees and $500 for mandatory drug treatment.

Then he really paid. Over the next 18 months, it cost him about $10,000.

Selken lost his federal student aid and got fired from his job as an account supervisor at a hotel chain, forfeiting the company’s tuition-reimbursement and other benefits. He dropped to part time at school, worked two jobs waiting tables and paid the remainder of his tuition with a credit card, for which he is now paying interest.

“After I had gone through the court system and paid my fine, done my time, I had assumed I had done what I needed to do to be an upstanding citizen again,” Selken said. “Then I do my research and find out that people who have a drug conviction are ineligible to receive loans but people who were defrauding the loans are not.” His case is on appeal.

Daniel Jabbour, 23, was charged with intent to distribute. Still, the offense was considered minor enough to qualify his case for dismissal pending drug treatment. His employer retained him, and he won’t have a record. But Jabbour, a university senior weeks from graduation, has been permanently expelled from his private university, the Stevens Institute of Technology.

He will have to decide later whether to move forward with a computer-science career without a bachelor’s degree or to invest in the year or two of extra college courses to graduate from a new university.

“I saw cannabis as something that was not going to risk your career,” Jabbour said. “It’s not generally regarded as a problem by students.

“What this has taught me is the consequences really don’t fit the crime,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”

Clean the slate

The most obvious way to avoid such a problem is to avoid using drugs, as well as the cars and apartments of those who do. No matter your beliefs, the fact remains that they’re against the law.

If arrested, hire a lawyer. Work to have the charge reduced or dismissed. Many states will dismiss a first offense with approved treatment. Before accepting a plea, consider the long-term implications of any record.

If you have already have a record:

  • Don’t lie about it. Not all employers will disqualify you for a drug incident. They will disqualify you, however, if you’re dishonest. “I’ve had so many employers tell me, ‘Gosh, if they’d just told me about it I would have hired ’em. Now I can’t,'” said Callahan, of Employment Screening Services
  • Learn your rights. Research the laws in your state. Some arrests, or even minor convictions, cannot be considered after a certain period of time.
  • Find out if state law provides a remedy for relief. See the guide at The Sentencing Project. There are different rules, including relief from a particular professional sanction.
  • Check the Web site of the court where you received the conviction. Some have downloadable expungement packets to get you started. Call the public defender’s office or a legal-aid group to find expungement clinics. Also search for “post-conviction relief” or “pardon.”
  • Make sure that online companies offering instant relief are doing more than simply charging you for forms that you can get at the courthouse.

Published Nov. 27, 2007

Comments are closed.