An arrest for a simple marijuana crime may not seem like a big deal – after all, who really cares that you enjoy smoking a plant that grows in the ground?

Marijuana and GavelWell, police and prosecutors do, at least in places that haven’t legalized or decriminalized cannabis. Even in states with medical marijuana, the criminal justice system often targets low-level users for possession and minor distribution offenses.

But what happens once you’re arrested? What should you do? And do you need to hire a lawyer?

Let’s say you’re sitting on the stoop in front of your building, smoking a joint. A police officer walks by, smells the pot, searches you, and arrests you for simple possession. This is a misdemeanor in most states, meaning you could do at least a few days in jail.

Permanent criminal record

The worst part of a misdemeanor conviction, though, is that it goes on your permanent criminal record, a document that could keep you from landing a job, renting an apartment, or securing government benefits.

About 20 states have replaced these criminal penalties with small civil fines, and four states have legalized cannabis completely. Another 25 states allow medical marijuana. But most states still treat possession of pot for personal use as a crime.

Once you’re arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana charge, you’ll be booked at a local police station and either released on your honor or held in jail until you can post bail. This is the point at which you should seriously consider asking for a lawyer.

Always get an attorney

Why get an attorney? Why not just represent yourself? Possession is a pretty simple offense, after all, and it’s not like they’re going to throw the book at you over a lousy joint, right?

To answer those questions, there’s an old saying in legal circles: “Any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” If you’re not an attorney yourself – and even if you are – serving as your own counsel can be a terrible idea.

For one thing, prosecutors probably see things from a very different point of view than you do. To them, you’re not so much a petty criminal as you are a potential statistic, an easy conviction to add to their career tally. So they do a cost-benefit analysis: Is it worth their time and resources to get this low-end conviction?

To a career prosecutor, the answer is often yes. That doesn’t mean you’re going to spend months in jail if you don’t get a lawyer, necessarily, but it does mean you will have no one on your side to fend off your district attorney’s predatory instincts.

Plea-bargaining process

You will also have no one to help you navigate the complex plea-bargaining process. This is how most criminal charges are resolved: No more than 10 percent of cases go to trial, and far fewer end in acquittal. If you don’t have an advocate who has a professional relationship with prosecutors and knows how to negotiate with them, you could wind up getting stiffed.

If you do go to trial, you’ll almost certainly be in over your head without a competent lawyer. Courtroom rules are arcane and non-intuitive, and it’s nearly impossible to make credible arguments about marijuana law without a legal education.

Private vs. public lawyers

Once you’ve been arrested, there are two kinds of attorneys at your disposal: private and public. Private lawyers tend to be much better at the job and are more likely to get you off without a record, but they’re also incredibly expensive. Public defenders, on the other hand, are cheap – free, actually – but they’re usually swamped in cases and often not very good at what they do.

But when you’re facing criminal charges, any defense attorney is better than none. You may believe you’re such an articulate, intelligent person that you can argue your way around any legal obstacle, but nothing is ever that simple in a courtroom.

So if you’re facing cannabis charges, do yourself a favor and get yourself the best lawyer you can find, public or private. And don’t wait – ask the police for an attorney before the handcuffs even click. We all hate lawyers, but sometimes we need them anyway.

Tell us below: Would you really need a lawyer if you were arrested for simple possession? Why?

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