Ex-addict supports new bill to reduce risk of felony charges

I used to sit in my car listening to the public radio station while I waited for my drug dealer to arrive. Shows like the “BBC News Hour,” “This American Life” and “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” droned in one ear and out the other. I could rarely concentrate on anything except drugs, but I thought these shows made me seem smart, liberal.

Since my 20s, I secretly wanted to be an intellectual liberal yuppie. I had a simple dream of living in a nice apartment in Manhattan, drinking wine, writing books and discussing literature over dinner with other like-minded friends.

That could explain why I ended up living in San Francisco. I was never politically aware, partly because I was too high on heroin and booze to care about anything except myself, until I became a journalist. While it’s still not my forte, I’ve become increasingly interested in drug policies.

April 23, State Senator Mark Leno’s new drug bill, which would reduce drug possession from a mandatory felony to a misdemeanor, was approved by a senate committee and will be voted on by the full State Senate in May. The SB 649 bill doesn’t automatically change the law. It just allows the prosecutor to lessen the charge if the case merits it.

Leno attempted a similar bill last year that would’ve made all small drug possession charges a misdemeanor, but it failed to pass. The idea is to reduce the burden on the state’s overcrowded prison system by not sending so many drug users to jail.

Once a felon, the path is hard. It’s a tough stigma to shake. Jobs are hard to come by, cops can search them without warrants and if they’re on parole they can’t vote.

For the junkie who gets a severe charge, like burglary, and ends up in prison, a small possession felony can violate his parole and send him back to prison or at least to county jail for a few months. It can be a vicious cycle.

Luckily, I never got popped for a felony charge that stuck. I did get close once.

For years, I parked in the same general area near my drug dealer’s house, often multiple times a day. It was a suburban setting with blocks of ranch-style houses. This day though, my dealer got more paranoid than normal and had me park a half block down from my usual spot, landing me right in front of a preschool.

But I didn’t care. I stayed parked on the street in front of the school for a half hour waiting for my dealer to deliver me heroin. I had the windows down and was leaning back in my seat chain smoking cigarettes with the stereo dialed to the local public radio station. I sat up and looked around. Then I noticed some women at the school were acting abnormal. They gathered the children playing outside and herded them inside. The teachers looked around suspiciously and then glared at me. A sheriff drove by, and they tried to flag him down.

This was not good. I panicked.

I started the car and sped off, zipping around the corner. I pulled in to the parking lot of a nearby liquor store. I couldn’t leave, I still needed my drugs. I phoned my dealer. He told me to drive by his house and he would be there on the street waiting.

I drove back, passing the school. A sheriff car was now parked there. I continued on like everything was cool, until I saw my dealer standing on the street. I sped up, swerved at him, slammed on the brakes, got the dope and raced off. My house wasn’t too far. Maybe I could make it. Another police car passed in front of me at a stop sign. I prayed to God, “Don’t let him notice me.” He did a U-turn, and pulled me over a few blocks down the road. I knew I was busted. I didn’t want a felony possession charge so I swallowed the dope, which was wrapped in plastic still, and hoped I could barf it up later.

At first the cop thought I was a pedophile. He made snide comments and tried to make me feel guilty and bad about myself. It worked.

I was on unsupervised probation, which allowed the cop to search me. He found a Narcotics Anonymous work book in my car and some old syringe wrappers. Good thing I cleaned out all my dirty old needles from the center compartment the day before.

Unfortunately, he still arrested me for being under the influence of a controlled substance. My car was towed and I was taken to a holding cell downtown where I immediately tried to puke up the baggy of dope I had swallowed. It was too late. But at least I spent the next ten hours comfortably high before getting released.

I’ve had a lot of embarrassing moments in my life, but being suspected as a pedophile tops the list.

Looking back, the whole thing seemed so predictable. Of course, getting arrested and accused of being a child molester would have happened, but at the time I was shocked.

Good thing I swallowed the dope otherwise it could have been much worse. The cop might have found it and arrested me for possession of an illicit substance. The District Attorney would have had no choice but to charge me with a felony. At least with the proposed drug bill SB 649, the DA could choose either a felony or misdemeanor.

A felony would still haunt me today, probably would’ve landed me in prison.

I support Leno’s bill and the decriminalization of drugs, if only to keep more people out of prison, including myself.

Now that I don’t use drugs, I no longer get arrested. Instead, I spend my free time at the gym, fast-walking on the treadmill, listening to “This American Life” and “Freakonomics” podcasts.

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