Michael Gray walked into the visitation room at the Muscogee County Jail, hands behind his back, escorted by a correctional officer. Just a few months ago, he was a senior at Albany State University studying music education. But he was arrested in February for possession of marijuana and landed in jail.
Last week, in a jailhouse interview, Gray, 24, worried about the impact the felony would have on his plans to become a band teacher. Three days later, a Chattahoochee judge released him from jail and put him in a recovery program.
Now he has a felony record for life. Its a stupid thing to be in trouble over, Gray said of his marijuana addiction,
Gray represents hundreds of African-Americans that are arrested each year in the Columbus metropolitan area for marijuana possession, a charge that has become the gateway into a criminal system that relegates them to the fringes of society.
Officials at local law enforcement agencies say they dont keep track of drug arrests by race. However, the Ledger-Enquirer obtained arrest statistics from the Georgia Uniform Crime Reporting program, part of a national system established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Sherry Lang, GBI director of public affairs, said all law enforcement agencies are required by law to report crime information through the federal program, but not all comply. She said local law enforcement agencies that reported the information include the Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Marshalls Office, Columbus State University, Chattahoochee County Sheriffs Office, Harris County Sheriffs Office and Pine Mountain Police Department.
According to the reports, blacks accounted for 74 percent of arrests for marijuana possession. The local data correlates with national statistics recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed blacks were arrested at four times the rate of whites for the use of marijuana, despite both groups using the drug at the same rate.
Gray, a 2007 graduate of Hardaway High School, has a family history of addiction. His grandmother, Cheryl Sapp, now a clinical program director at Talbot Recovery, was addicted to heroin in the 1970s. His mother, Troy, was addicted to cocaine in the 1980s. She had a relapse in 2000 after becoming a registered nurse.
Troy Gray said shes in recovery and has been clean for six years. Her nursing licence was recently reinstated with some restrictions. She wants to break the family cycle of substance abuse, starting with her son. His father also had a drug addiction, she said, and after he went to prison he was never the same.
Going to jail, and talking to (Michael) behind that glass, he looked just like his father, she said. It was like a flashback, and thats not the life I want for him.
Gray said he avoided drugs all through high school, where he played percussion in the marching band. In college, he stayed away from drugs like cocaine and heroin because of his mothers and grandmothers history with the drugs. But he figured marijuana was safe.
If I were to have a vice, I decided that marijuana wasnt that bad, considering all the other things I could be addicted to, Gray said. He began smoking the drug every day with college friends, and soon he was addicted.
In the summer of 2011, he received some extra money and came to Columbus to buy a few ounces. On the way back to school, there was a police roadblock in Chattahoochee County. When police searched the car, they found the marijuana. Gray said the driver of the vehicle was arrested for driving with a suspended license, and he was charged with marijuana possession with intent to sell.
Gray said he bought the drug in bulk to have it at school when he needed it, not to distribute.
I wasnt trying to be any major dope dealer, but if a friend needed some extra, then I would be able say Ive got some.
Grays attorney, Stacey Jackson, said Gray was placed in a conditional discharge program, which would have made him eligible to have the felony expunged if he completed probation in four years. But his second arrest in February violated the terms of probation, and thats why the felony remains.
Nate Sanderson, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said laws should be changed so that people battling addiction arent treated like criminals. He said many non-violent felons like Gray are in prison because of drug dependency, and they lose their rights to vote, own a weapon or pursue a career that would allow them to pull themselves out of poverty.
Too often we depend on our citizens getting substance abuse help through the penal system, he said. If youre a poor white (person) or a minority, youre much more likely to be convicted of a drug felony offense, and then you must live with the stigma.