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Arrested For Marijuana: My Experience With Prohibition

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I was 19 and without shoes, money, a car, my friend or a working phone the first and only time I was arrested for marijuana.

We had been a little foolish, my friend and I, deciding to drive south from our cozy college town on a weekend whim, expecting to leave Friday afternoon and return Sunday evening. We were headed for Vegas, baby. Vegas!

The distance between Corvallis, Oregon and Las Vegas, Nevada is about 915 miles. That’s almost fifteen hours of nonstop driving. I guess we could have technically pulled it off, but I didn’t have insurance and wasn’t experienced with a stickshift, so it would have been a one-man job. We got to Redding after about 6 hours with darkness closing in, still barely into northern California. That’s when we decided to revise our plan.

Sleeping in a car isn’t fun, and being in a tiny two-door Honda made the experience exceptionally challenging. We had a bit to smoke and watched the sun go down from the edge of a Target parking lot. The next morning, we drove out to the coast, having decided to abandon our intention to hit Vegas (we weren’t even 21 anyway, we reasoned).

Having already passed Weed and now headed into Eureka, we kept our noses alert for anything marijuana-related. It’s not that we wanted to obtain anything, but we were well aware of the reputation that Humboldt County has, and spotting someone else smoking while outside your home turf is kinda like seeing someone else with the same shirt you’re wearing. You go, “hey, look!” and get excited for a minute. Then you realize it’s sort of an empty experience. It’s pretty likely that at least two people with “No Fear” shirts have the same laundry day, and finding someone else who smokes weed in northern California is not exactly a 4-leaf clover discovery.

We made it to the Pacific by late morning. The beach was cold and the wind threatened to ruin our day, but by noon the sun had come out. We climbed some rocks and looked out over the ocean from a high point on a nearby hill. Eventually my buddy found a cave. We smoked a bit in there and hung out until the tide came in. He climbed a cliff to escape, while I braved the jagged rocks (they were knee-height, but terrifying, I swear!). A few hours later he made his way all the way around from the top of the cliff and found me lying on the sand half burnt by the sun and still a bit fried.

It was a great day.

After some rest and along the road home (we’d given up all our plans at this point, as it was already getting late on Saturday), we found an abandoned field. We stepped out for a smoke and watched bats fly overhead. I forget which one of us said it:

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country!”

At the very southern tip of Oregon is a small town called Grants Pass. It’s the place that recently put a man in jail for 10 years for selling medical marijuana. They take their marijuana laws pretty seriously there.

This is a good place to tell you about my friend’s left taillight. It was out. A week before our trip, we’d been pulled over on our way back from Portland. The cop searched our car with his flashlight and let us off with a warning. We were terrified, but were able to laugh about the experience within a few miles. I’d asked him about the light before we started on our trip to Vegas, laughing again when he said he hadn’t fixed it.

The lights flashed as we left a gas station. My friend took a long time to pull over, which probably wasn’t hastened by my screaming “Pull over! Pull over!” without pointing out a safe place to do so. We ended up circling around to the same gas station. The officers were not amused.

“What took you so long to pull over?”

“I couldn’t find a safe place. I’m sorry.”

“There were lots of places back there. Are you feeling okay?”

It was a fair question. It was past midnight, around one or two, and we were among the few drivers on the road. Grants Pass is strict about marijuana because of all the marijuana that gets smuggled through the city each year. Crime rates are higher than average for the state and the cops can be a bit edgy.

“Yes, we’re fine. How are you?”

Asking questions like that probably feels smooth at the time, but they’re revealing.

“Are you aware that you have a taillight out?”

“Yes. I’m going to get it fixed tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not safe to be driving like that.”

He leaned in and looked into my buddy’s eyes.

“You look a little tired. Have you been drinking?”

“No, officer.”

That one was true.

“Smoking marijuana?”

Damn. I think he just went for it. We hadn’t made any plans before that, though we could’ve seen it coming. I sat in silence.

“No, officer.”

“Really? Where are you headed?”

“Corvallis. We’re on our way home.”

“Oh yeah? Where are you coming from?”

“Redding. We’re on a road trip.”

“Ah, Humboldt County. They have some great weed down there, don’t they?”

Like that would work. It’s tough to lie, though. I think we were already busted at this point, but the struggle would go on for about four hours in total. They asked to search our car, which we denied. They had no probable cause, and anything we had was far out of sight.

It’s at this point that I should probably bring up the suitcase full of random substances in the trunk. We hadn’t really planned on doing any of them, but my friend had just seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and wanted something “just in case”. He went around campus asking everyone he knew for anything they could find and stuffed the results in a suitcase. Most of the items were unlabeled research chemicals, and it’s still not entirely clear exactly how (il)legal they are. None of them were cocaine, heroin or anything that isn’t psychedelic.

There was also a small glass pipe under my seat. That was my contribution.

The cops called the dogs after about thirty minutes. They told us we’d be let go if we didn’t have anything serious. They were convinced we had pounds of something dangerous stashed somewhere. We didn’t, but we didn’t really trust them enough to open up the doors outright.

It got cold at some point. I asked to sit in the back of the patrol car. They let me. I heard some creepy things on the radio. Assault, theft, drug trafficking. Hey, wait – that’s us! I’d never been on the radio before. I listened intently as the dogs arrived from Medford and hopped up and stuck their heads in the car (as we called foul) and apparently gave the signal. Dogs have incredible smell, so I’m sure they caught the cannabis resin in my pipe.

That’s what they busted me for. They split us up and threatened my academic career and tried to pit us against each other. I told them the truth at that point. The pipe was mine.

My friend, on the other hand, took full responsibility for the suitcase and everything in the car. “Suspected cocaine,” the radio said. “Potential heroin.”

He disappeared for four days. I was left there at the gas station without money, a working phone, keys to the car or a way to get home. My shoes were soaked from the water earlier that day. My friend screamed at the police to let him give me something; keys, cash, whatever. They said he couldn’t. I asked them how I would get home. They said they didn’t know and drove away, reminding me not to lose my ticket and to expect something in the mail soon. I had been arrested for marijuana possession, but was allowed to because my friend had claimed the suitcase.

I was lucky to know where the spare was hidden (under the license plate). I walked through the criminal-infested city to a 7-Eleven after grabbing a phone charger. My mother wasn’t happy to hear about the situation, but she agreed to wire money to a Greyhound station across town. It was 5am. The bus came at 7:30am. I slept for an hour in the back of the car and then walked barefoot to the bus.

Later that week I saw my friend again. We laughed it off, but only after he got a lawyer and they dropped the charges. He spent four nights in jail for possessing some strange powders and flowers. He shared an open space with thieves and violent criminals.

Most of them were pretty nice guys, he said.

I ended up taking an overnight bus a few months later to plead guilty to possession of the resin in the pipe that was under my seat. I asked the judge if she thought the dogs were breaking the rules. She said it didn’t matter because I’d already admitted that the pipe was mine. Oops.

I got my medical marijuana card a few months after that. The fine wasn’t fun to pay, and the license didn’t help me.
I don’t know what I learned from the experience. It’s one of my favorite stories to tell whenever people start sharing wild moments from their youth. Is the current state of prohibition preposterous? Sure it is. Were we being stupid regardless? Yeah, probably. Would I do it all again? You bet.