Earlier this school year, a sixth-grader in the gifted-and-talented program at Bedford Middle School in Bedford, Virginia was suspended for one year after an assistant principal found something that looked like a marijuana leaf in his backpack.
The student, the 11-year-old son of two school teachers, had to enroll in the district's alternative education program and be homeschooled. He was evaluated by a psychiatrist for substance abuse problems, and charged with marijuana possession in juvenile court. In the months since September, he's become withdrawn, depressed, and he suffers from panic attacks. He is worried his life is over, according to his mother, and that he will never get into college.
The only problem? The "leaf" found in the student's backpack wasn't what authorities thought it was -- it tested negative for marijuana three separate times.
All of this is laid out in detail by Dan Casey in a column in the Roanoke Times today. While the juvenile court dropped its case against the student after the tests turned up negative, the school system, in a community located midway between Roanoke and Lynchburg, has been far less forgiving. That's because stringent anti-drug policies in school districts in Virginia and elsewhere consider "imitation" drugs to be identical to real ones for disciplinary purposes.
The school's lawyer, Jim Guynn, is quoted in the Roanoke Times article defending the policy on the basis that "it's a pretty standard policy across the Commonwealth." In 2011, for instance, four seventh-graders in Chesapeake, Virginia were suspended over bringing a bag of oregano to school. A quick Google search suggests similar policies are in effect in many other states as well.
It doesn't matter if your son or daughter brings a real pot leaf to school, or if he brings something that looks like a pot leaf -- okra, tomato, maple, buckeye, etc. If your kid calls it marijuana as a joke, or if another kid thinks it might be marijuana, that's grounds for expulsion.
The Bedford sixth-grader has been allowed to return to school starting today. But he has to attend a different school, separate from his former friends and peers, and he's still under strict probation until this September. The terms of his original suspension letter state that he'll be searched for drugs at the beginning and end of every school day until his probation is over.
It's unclear what exactly transpired before the assistant principal discovered the leaf in the Bedford student's backpack. School authorities say the student was showing it to other kids and telling them it was pot. The student's parents say he never would have done such a thing, and that it was planted there as a joke by another kid.
Either scenario raises troubling questions given the severity of the punishment. Kids, especially at that age, joke about things all the time. When I was in sixth grade my friends and I would dump out Pixy Sticks on our desks and arrange the powdered sugar in neat little lines, like cocaine, although I don't think any of us was dumb enough to try to snort it. We only knew what cocaine was because of D.A.R.E., the ineffective school anti-drug campaign of the 80s and 90s.
Under rules in place today in Virginia and elsewhere, we would have been considered possessing "imitation cocaine" and subject to expulsion.
The Bedford case is a microcosm of drug policy -- especially marijuana policy -- at the national level. Most of the harm associated with marijuana use comes not from using marijuana, but from getting caught up in the strict punishments meted out by the criminal justice system for using it.
The harm that the Bedford school district inflicted on this boy is far greater than any harm he could have incurred by eating an actual marijuana leaf, or even smoking it, or even smoking a dozen leaves.
Fortunately, kids are resilient. With any luck the student will start to bounce back once his year of probation and mandatory pat-downs is over. But as the parent of two boys, the prospect of this sort of ordeal terrifies me.
More marijuana policy from Wonkblog: