Florida has historically been the center of the illicit trade in prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin inside the United States. Yet it has responded to this trade with harsh enforcement that can transform even the most minor offenses into life-ruining mistakes. As Reason details, one man lost his entire career after he was caught with one Oxycontin pill by Florida police:
As a final punishment, the judge instructed James to immediately report his arrest to his employer, and to let his probation officer know when he had done so.
With his case settled, James returned to Jacksonville and told his boss at Merrill Lynch what happened. His supervisor told him not to worry. A week later, he was instructed to modify his broker’s license to reflect that he’d pled no-contest to drug possession. This is both a federal and a state-level requirement, generally meant to protect investors. It ended up ruining James’s career. The modification to his license triggered an internal warning at Merrill Lynch. The firm placed him on paid leave for two weeks, and then fired him.
Once James’s probation officer found out he’d been let go, she required him to bring with him to their meetings a list of every job for which he’d applied since they last met. His probation officer then called each and every company’s HR department to verify that James had actually applied.
“I am sure once the HR department at my prospective job talked to her, that my resume was thrown away,” James wrote in an email.
It took James a month to find a new job, but it wasn’t with a financial firm. Instead, he was hired on as a short order cook by a woman had opened a restaurant after an underage drinking charge prevented her from teaching.
James was arrested in 2006, before Florida drug laws and enforcement intensified in response to recent fears about an increase in prescription drug abuse. Today, “he’d probably be charged with possession of a controlled substance, which is a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a level 3 offense under the Criminal Punishment Code,” according to Greg Newburn, Director of Florida’s chapter of Families against Mandatory Minimums. So on top of losing his job, having difficulty finding housing, and being forced to attend unnecessary treatment sessions, he’d also have a decent chance of going to jail — all for the crime of possessing a single pill he never used.
The victims of Florida’s most recent crackdown, spearheaded by Governor Rick Scott, extend well beyond James. Ordinary pill users, who require painkillers for legitimate medical reasons, are finding it increasingly difficult to get access to medication, and shutting down pain clinics believed to be responsible for spreading prescription drugs doesn’t appear to be eliminating illicit sales. One of Florida’s new laws, which shifts the burden of proof in certain drug cases onto the defendant, raises serious constitutional questions. Florida’s broader history with tough drug laws is also bleak — though the average prison sentence length for non-violent drug roughly tripled from 1990 to 2009 (the highest increase in the country), there appeared to be no significant reduction in terms of crime rate as a consequence.