Teen's Federal Charge Highlights the Confusing Reality of Marijuana Laws in America

June 7th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The federal government hasn't charged anyone in Oregon with a marijuana-related crime since 2011, but now officials are bringing down the hammer on a 19-year-old student, NBC-affiliate KGW8 reports.


Devontre Thomas got busted for marijuana possession in 2015, when he was 18 years old. Thomas' lawyer told KGW8 that his client paid another teen $20 for weed but denies that he actually possessed it at the time of the arrest. Still, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges in April alleging that Thomas "knowingly and intentionally possessed marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance."


Recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, but only for people over 21.

If Thomas had been charged by the state, Oregon law stipulates that possession of less than one ounce of marijuana by a person under 21 is a Class B violation that carries a $650 fine, according to the Oregon State Legislature. But because Thomas was charged under federal law, his possession case carries a misdemeanor charge that's punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $1,000.

"It’s a big deal when it comes to federal," Thomas told KGW8. "That’s what scares me about it."

The case raises questions about the evolving relationship between federal and state marijuana policy. In 2014, Congress included an amendment in a spending bill that prohibits federal law enforcement agencies from using federal funds to interfere with marijuana programs in states with legalized marijuana, but there are specific exceptions to that directive, The Huffington Post reports.


Whether Thomas' possession case represents those exceptions is unknown. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland declined to comment because the case is pending. The spokesperson was also unable to answer questions about the circumstances surrounding Thomas' arrest, which is currently shrouded in mystery.

The case highlights an ongoing problem and source of anxiety for legal marijuana users: Federal law trumps state law, and federal law stipulates that marijuana is strictly illegal.

"Why continue to try to ruin people’s lives?" Russ Belville, founder of Portland NORML, told KGW8. "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?"

RELATED: The Supreme Court Made a Bold Statement on Marijuana