As a criminal defense lawyer a mere five minute walk from the Penn State campus, I have represented countless Penn State students charged with marijuana-related offenses. More often than not, the initial phone calls or emails come from the students' parents, rather than the students themselves, because the parents are the ones who will be hiring a criminal defense attorney. A commonly raised concern among parents is whether they should be worried about deeper problems than the small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charge, and whether they should get their child into drug treatment.
The favorite answer of lawyers to most questions is "it depends," and it is the most appropriate answer in this scenario. Sometimes, marijuana use is a symptom of bigger problems, like depression, while other times it is harmless, occasional recreational use. We really need to know more before we can ascertain whether criminal charges arising from marijuana use are just the tip of the iceberg.
The most important factor, in my opinion, are the student's grades. If he or she is making the dean's list, then chances are the student is using cannabis responsibly. It is very difficult to get good grades in college if you are smoking weed every day. Another key factor is the time of the offense. For example, if the student was caught toking at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, that would be consistent with responsible, socially appropriate use. Conversely, if the student was caught smoking at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday or the night before an exam, that is self-defeating behavior, which is cause for alarm.
I have represented enough students over the years to conclude that most Penn State students charged with misdemeanor level marijuana charges do not have a drug problem, but a minority of these students defendants certainly do, and should enter treatment. Most marijuana abusers, as opposed to responsible users, need only out-patient treatment, unlike absuers of harder drugs like alcohol or cocaine, who may require in-patient treatment. Those who need inpatient treatment for marijuana abuse usually have a dual diagnosis, which may include a form of mental illness.
If the student charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses has no prior record, we are usually able to avail ourselves of the ARD program, which can ultimately lead to dismissal and expungement of the charges. The vast majority of these students go on to have successful careers after graduation. Thanks to Linked-In's email recognition program, I see what my former clients are up to five or six years later. They range the gamut from engineers, stock brokers, teachers, scientists and even young lawyers. So, even if it looks like doom and gloom freshman year when your child is caught smoking weed in the dorms, most of these stories ultimately have a happy ending.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer and Penn State alumnus in State College, Pennsylvania. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Marijuana-Related-Offenses.shtml