There are more than 20 states in the U.S. where growing small amounts of marijuana is legal—North Carolina isn’t one of them. Those caught cultivating cannabis in the Tar Heel State are usually slapped with a felony, prison time, and anywhere from a $200 to $200,000 fine.
Unless, apparently, that person is a police officer.
Take the case of Thomas Daniel Gaskins. Police arrested the 33-year-old on June 13 in connection to 11 marijuana plants found in a forest. The plants were bizarrely uncovered after landscaping men noticed a hose had been attached to a fire hydrant. They traced it into the woods where police found close to a dozen pot plants and evidence allegedly linking them to Gaskins.
Upon searching Gaskins’s home, cops say they found a small amount of marijuana, various paraphernalia, and a closet that had been converted into an indoor grow operation (which had yet to be used).
At the time of his arrest, Gaskins, a father of two and former deputy sheriff at a local police station, worked as a police officer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Local news confirmed the arrest and initially reported that he had been charged both with “manufacturing” and possession of marijuana. But later reports began reflecting that he had only been charged with possession, a misdemeanor.
A clerk at the Rowan County District Court told The Daily Beast that Gaskins will be heading to court in mid-July but said that confirmed that he is not facing any cultivation charges. “Just possession of marijuana and paraphernalia,” she said, reading from his file.
After multiple calls to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, an officer answered the phone and said he was familiar with the Gaskins case. When asked if he was charged with possession or manufacture of the drug, he replied “both.” But after learning that his court record reflected only the possession, he put the phone on hold.
Upon returning, he said to reach out to the lead detective on the case who, at the time of publishing, has not returned multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast. If Gaskins has gotten off without being charged for the plants, it’s seemingly not for lack of evidence. According to the official police report, obtained by NBC Charlotte, there was enough to issue a warrant.
Brian Nichols, the officer on the case, arrested Gaskins under the charge that he was “planting and growing 11 marijuana plants, with the use of a town fire hydrant, in a wooded area,” according to the report. His crime is listed as a Class I felony, punishable by three to eight months in prison. Based on his arrest report, Gaskins was released 24 hours later.
Lt. Sergeant Patrick Reagan all but defended the officer to local news. “While this may have just been a bad mistake, a lack of judgment on this person’s part, we certainly don’t condemn them or condone their actions in any way, either,” he said. In the same interview, Reagan said that police weren’t clear whether Gaskins was growing the marijuana for himself or to distribute to others.
Gaskins’s wife reportedly is a nurse at the VA, where veterans go to seek treatment from everything from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps ironically, marijuana has proven to be successful in treating PTSD. Yet because it’s still federally illegal, the drug is unavailable to most veterans. So it’s possible that Gaskins’s alleged weed operation was meant for altruistic purposes.
Indeed, former coworkers remember Gaskins as a good worker. Mark Francisco, internal affairs sergeant for the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, said he was a deputy sheriff at his office for two or three years. The two didn’t interact much—which, considering Francisco’s role, is a good thing. “If there was complaint about him doing drugs, or something to that effect, I would have known about it,” Francisco said.
From what Francisco remembers, Gaskins left on good terms, citing something to do with his wife moving to Charlotte. The two men “weren’t friends,” but close enough that the idea of a marijuana violation caught him off guard when authorities reached out last week. “I was surprised,” he told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t know he was using drugs.”
None of this of course is to imply that Gaskins was a serious criminal, or that he deserves decades of jail time. But whether he (seemingly) got off with a misdemeanor because of good intentions or because of his role as a former public servant, his story is a perfect representation of the war on drugs’ biggest problem—racial bias.
According to a 2011 report from the American Civil Liberties Union called The War on Marijuana in Black and White, minorities are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites. In some states, the number is even higher—like in Iowa, where African Americans are more than eight times more likely to be arrested for having weed.
The high rate of arrests for minorities translates into a disproportionate number serving time for drug crimes, despite using them at the same rate. In Louisiana, one of the nation’s most notorious states for racially-biased drug arrests, there are more than 2,500 people serving life for nonviolent drug offenses. Sixty-nine percent of them, according to the ACLU, are black.
While 11 marijuana plants may not seem like a large offense, it dwarfs many marijuana crimes that minorities are serving life sentences for today. Take the case of Fate Vincent Winslow, who was sentenced to life in prison using mandatory minimum sentencing laws for selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover officer. Winslow was accompanied by a white man in the sale, who—despite receiving $15 of the $20—was never even arrested.
That’s not to say that white men haven’t fallen victim to the drug war, just that they’re far less likely to serve the kind of hard time that minorities are often slapped with. A few months ago, The New York Times wrote an op-ed about the case of Lee Carroll Brooker, an elderly white veteran who was sentenced to life for growing marijuana to treat his own health conditions. But Brooker—unfortunately for him—is the exception.
Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, isn’t surprised by the Gaskins case. “I think it speaks to the unequal application of drug laws across the board,” he told The Daily Beast. “The model of prohibition is supposed to be equal sentences… but what we find is racial disparities among drug are horrendous, even though use rates are equal. People of color are more likely to be incarcerated and have heavy sentences handed down.”
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, says that charging Gaskins with possession only is “incredibly” lenient. “Our clients almost never get that deferential treatment, unless there’s something that hasn’t been reported,” he said. “Maybe if he was providing it to people at the VA.” Whether it was an altruistic grow or not, such leniency is rare.
Collins agrees. “Getting a more lenient sentence speaks to what has been a problem since day one,” he says. “Certain individuals get a harsh sentence and certain individuals get off scot-free.”