Oregon voters legalized the use of recreational marijuana by adults in 2014. But it remains illegal for all purposes under federal law, where it is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same designation as heroin. The Justice Department has officially adopted a hands-off policy when it comes to state-level marijuana laws, as outlined in a 2013 memo by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole. However, the memo states that U.S. attorneys should continue to prosecute cases involving "the distribution of marijuana to minors."
Still, many are calling it a federal overreach, given the minuscule amount of marijuana involved in Thomas's case — enough for one or two typical joints.
"The federal government hasn't prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years," U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told the Willamette (Ore.) Week. "Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state."
The details of the case were first reported by Oregon's KGW.com and the Willamette Week. Thomas's lawyer, public defender Ruben Iniguez, told the Willamette Week that the marijuana was found in another student's backpack and that the student told authorities that Thomas had sold it to him. In court documents, Billy J. Williams, U.S. attorney for Oregon, said Thomas "knowingly and intentionally possessed marijuana."
Williams's office did not respond to The Washington Post's request for comment. He told told the Willamette Week last month that "we look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process." Federal prosecutors have declined further comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Marijuana use is fairly common among the nation's teenagers. In 2015, nearly half of the nation's 12th-graders had used marijuana at some point, according to the federal Monitoring the Future survey. But very few of those students have faced a criminal conviction for marijuana use — to say nothing of federal drug charges.
Prosecutors had expected Thomas to plead guilty to the possession charge and enter a six-month treatment program. But at a court appearance in July, his lawyer announced that he would fight the charge and request a jury trial.
It's a potentially risky move. A guilty verdict could lead to a year-long prison stint and a $1,000 fine. On the other hand, a guilty plea could mean the lifelong burden of a federal drug conviction, which could affect Thomas's ability to get student loans, find a job, or find a place to live.
The case has outraged advocates for legalization.
"Why continue to try to ruin people’s lives?" asked Russ Belville, founder of the Portland chapter of the pro-marijuana group NORML, to KGW. "Make it tough for this kid to get a job, to be able to apply for college scholarships, to get security clearances, to own a home?"
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon told KGW that "I don't want kids using marijuana, but to have the heavy hand of the law in a case like this — when there are so many other much more serious issues — I think is a misallocation of resources."
As the ACLU detailed in 2013, the burden of that marijuana enforcement has fallen disproportionately on minority communities. Thomas grew up on Oregon's Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
"There's absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged," Portland lawyer Amy Margolis told the Willamette Week. "[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was."