Why I Fight Against the Drug War

Lauren Mendelsohn
J.D. Candidate 2016, UCI Law

I’m about to tell you about the most terrifying experience of my life, the event that solidified my dedication towards a particular social justice movement and motivated me to go to law school. This is the first time I’ve ever told this story publicly or tried to put it all down on paper, so bear with me.

A few years ago, during my sophomore year of college, I was hanging out with friends in their backyard off campus. It was a nice Friday evening, and there was a party going on next door. One of my friends had set up his new DJ decks and speakers and was about to start spinning. What happened next was a whirlwind. My back was turned away from the street, so I couldn’t see anyone approaching, but all of a sudden I heard a stern voice yell, “Everybody get down!” Before I could do anything, I was shoved off the chair I was sitting on and fell tumbling to the ground. In shock, I turned to look up towards my friends’ house and saw armored police rushing in. Other officers  (I could tell from their uniforms that they were special task force agents) were standing among the young students now lying petrified in the grass, pointing their weapons at us to keep us from moving.

I realized what was happening: this was a drug raid. It was impossible to believe at first—I was a good student with high aspirations, did I really just get caught up in something like this? And more importantly, my friends were good people and really still just kids; were their lives now destroyed because they sold drugs?

The agents outside began asking those of us on the ground to see IDs. Mine was in my purse, which was inside the house they were currently raiding. “It’s inside,” I said. “Go get it,” the agent replied as he took me by the arm and led me past the now-ruined DJ equipment (also toppled over in the rush) and in through the door. Inside, it already looked like a bomb had exploded; clothes and possessions were strewn about from searching. I walked over to my bag, shakily pulled out my wallet, and showed my license to the female officer who was now beside me. But then she turned on her flashlight and began to search my purse. My heart sank. In all the excitement of the preceding ten minutes, I’d nearly forgotten about the small amount of weed—a mere gram, twenty dollars worth back east—that I had just bought from my friend. Now I was doomed. At the time (the law has since been revised), possession of any amount of marijuana, no matter how small, could be punishable by up to a year in prison in the state of Maryland, where I was attending school.

When the officer found the little baggie, she shook her head, said something like, “look what we have here,” and told me to sit on the ground against the wall, next to my friends who they’d already lined up. Officers were in every room of the house, literally tearing the place apart looking for evidence. They kept asking, “Where are the guns? Where’s all the money?” Each time, my friend said, “Nowhere. We don’t have any.” Did these officers not understand? My friends didn’t have any weapons—they were peaceful hippie-types, not thugs. And there was no stash of money either; these kids weren’t operating a drug ring, they were selling pot to other college students to make enough money to support their own habit.

I knew what was happening would put my educational career in jeopardy. According to the 1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965, students with drug convictions on their record are denied federal aid for education. This means a student would lose any existing scholarships he or she had earned, and would be ineligible from receiving another federal scholarship without completing an extensive treatment program, even if just charged with a misdemeanor. Since I was attending college on a sizable merit scholarship, this was bad news. In addition, many universities, including the one I was at, revoked housing privileges for students with drug offenses on their records, which meant I could get kicked out of the dorm I was living in, and I didn’t have family nearby. At one point during the search, I begged desperately to be let go because I didn’t want to face university sanctions and lose my aid. The officer guarding us chuckled and said, “You could always go to school somewhere else.” As if that was so easy. That same sadistic officer later said to us, “You’re going to remember this forever as the day your lives were ruined.”

In the end, after nearly two hours of pure terror, the officers let me go. Their search warrant was for the house but I was not a resident, and being a crying little girl with such a trivial amount of contraband (compared to my four male friends, the main “targets”) must have softened the officers’ attitudes toward me just enough. But my friends were not so lucky—they all left that night in handcuffs. Afterwards, their lives were turned upside down. This tale is especially sad because one of them is no longer with us, but that’s a story for another time and place.

I recovered from this experience stronger and more motivated than ever to try to change the system that has thrown countless lives, like my friends’ and nearly my own, into upheaval. I changed majors and career tracks, and I began thinking about law school. I will admit that I moved to California because I was ready for a change in environment, a culture shift. I want to affect laws nationwide, but for the time being I need to be somewhere where my interest in cannabis and psychedelic medical research would not be deemed criminal. I therefore chose UCI because it provided a comfortable, progressive environment in which to acquire knowledge and hone my skills as I prepare to take on this issue on a national—perhaps even global—scale.

I founded a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at UCI Law because I wanted to open up the discussion about these issues here on campus and within conservative Orange County. I first became involved with SSDP in college, and the aforementioned event cemented my dedication to its cause. SSDP’s position is that current U.S. drug policies are discriminatory and unsound, both socially and economically, and that drug abuse should be treated primarily as a public health issue.

Law school is an ideal setting to explore this topic. These issues are inextricably related to the legal system and criminal justice. Additionally, the near future holds many opportunities for lawyers in the budding cannabis industry (pun intended). As an international organization with several law school chapters, SSDP can help UCI Law students network with potential employers in the field.

It might be hard for my classmates here in California to imagine the plight of individuals in other States, but we must step back and realize that our nation is made up of different laws and regulations. For social and legal change to happen on a macro level, it’s important for everyone to support nationwide reform of marijuana laws, mandatory minimums, sentencing disparities, zero-tolerance policies, and laws like the Higher Education Act that only harm our nation’s youth. Just imagine how much violent crime and corruption would decline if law enforcement stopped wasting time and money on people like my friends and started focusing on the real criminals.