Arizona has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country. Despite a decline in crime, the number of incarcerated people in Arizona has grown by a factor of 12 between 1978 and 2015, enough to earn the fourth highest incarceration rate nationwide.
Many, like Arizona state Rep. Kirsten Engel, believe Arizona's criminal justice reform pales in comparison to the rest of the country.
What does this mean for ASU students?
Arizona is the only state in the nation where the smallest possession of marijuana is classified as a felony. ASU students who use recreational weed are at a high risk of landing a charge for something that is legal in many states.
Some ASU students have found themselves victimized by strenuous laws, namely for nonviolent drug crimes that are enforced on a discretionary basis.
One ASU student, John, who preferred to remain anonymous for reasons that will be clear shortly, was arrested on suspicion of using marijuana.
He is an out-of-state student from an area where recreational marijuana usage is legal for those over the age of 21. John is in good academic standing and active on campus and in his community.
“We were in this parking lot smoking (marijuana), and that’s when two officers approached us," John said. "They cuffed me and my friends, took turns talking to us and ended up letting one of my friends go. They took my other friend and I down to the station. They arrested us for possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia, which are both felonies. I was with two friends, one was male and one was female. They didn’t arrest my female friend, but they arrested my (male) friend and me.”
Police caught all three students in the act of smoking marijuana.
For first time offenders of marijuana possession, this Class 6 felony charge is often pleaded down to a misdemeanor or wiped off someone’s record if the offender completes a pre-trial diversion program. These programs commonly consist of a series of classes and drug tests.
State of limbo
The statute of limitations for minor drug crimes like these also pose a serious stressor for those who were arrested but not formally charged.
Individuals like John who were arrested for possession of marijuana have not been officially charged because the statute of limitations for these crimes is seven years. This forces those arrested into a state of limbo, waiting to see if the charges will actually be imposed or if they will slip through the system.
“Frequently, we have clients that get charged two or more years after the offense,” David Black, a criminal defense attorney at the Law Offices of David A. Black, said. “I’ve seen where a student, who might have been a freshman when the offense occurred, getting charged with a felony nearing the end of his or her senior year – for possessing a joint years earlier.”
In comparison, the statute of limitations for sexual assault charges is two years.
“Because of the statute of limitations, I could be out of school and have a job by then, and under the current law, they can still charge me,” John said. “This was my first offense. Before that, I had never had so much as a parking ticket. That was my first encounter with law enforcement.”
Arresting individuals, namely college students, for nonviolent petty crimes may subject them to life-altering labels.
Bret Royle is a defense attorney in Arizona who works cases related to marijuana possession. He said a conviction can affect current and future employment, housing and academic applications. “The whole thing is completely avoidable in my mind. There’s just no reason that simple possession of marijuana should be a felony.”
John said that after his arrest, he began talking to a lot of people who had been arrested at ASU.
"It seems like it’s an issue that affects a widespread amount of people. To slap someone with a felony like that and basically brand them for life,” he said.
Arrests, especially for marijuana possession, disproportionately affect minority groups.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite studies stating that both groups use marijuana at comparable rates.