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A Rehabilitation Milestone

  • "I was on furlough in a small town and everybody judges you. Nobody would give me a job, and I had a kid," said Rich O'Connell. "So what was I going to do? I was buying and selling cars and selling marijuana." O'Connell feeds his son Mason during a visit at Watson Park in Hartford Village, Vt., Sunday, October 15, 2017. O'Connell is not permitted to have weekend visitors at Dismas House, the transitional residence where he was required to live for three months after serving a portion of his sentence in prison. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rich O'Connell talks about getting his curfew eased with his probation and parole officer Bill Drude, right, during their weekly meeting in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, October 11, 2017. O'Connell asked for extra hours in the evening so he could work a second job. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dismas House resident Richard O'Connell laughs with Tyler Taitague, of Bethel, right, at a pair of XOXO boxer shorts while shelving merchandise at the Listen Thrift Store in White River Junction, Vt., to fulfill a corrections work crew obligation, Tuesday, September 26, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rich O'Connell loaded a booster chair and a play chair purchased at the Listen Thrift Store in White River Junction, Vt., into his grandfather Richard O'Connell's truck after a day spent on a corrections work crew at the store, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. Richard O'Connell, of North Hyde Park, drove with his other grandson Andrew O'Connell, 10, of Randolph, to pick up Rich and deliver his purchases to his girlfriend and son. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As his required stay at Dismas House drew to a close Rich O'Connell got advice on his apartment search from Dismas House Director Renee DePalo, left, at Dismas House in Hartford Village, Vt., Tuesday, October 17, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



STORY BY MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING
Saturday, November 25, 2017

Hartford — Rich O’Connell knows how to do two things: fix engines and sell weed.

Just as Vermont is at a crossroads about whether to legalize recreational marijuana, O’Connell, 21, is at a crossroads in his young life.

When he was 4 or 5, the divorce of his parents created a roadmap of instability that would last for the rest of his childhood. But even as he bounced back and forth between their homes, he took pleasure in engines, whether it was a weed wacker or a tractor on his grandparents’ Randolph farm.

As a teen, he went to school to become certified as a diesel mechanic for heavy-duty vehicles. But even as he was preparing to turn one passion into a career, he was discovering another: marijuana, which he first smoked at 13.

Smoking weed seemed natural, he said, because his friends did. So did members of his family.

At 17, he graduated from couch surfing to renting a house in Barnard with a friend. His friend’s girlfriend had a friend, and before he knew it, he was in love. When he was 20, they learned they were going to have a baby.

A few months after his son was born, he was arrested for selling marijuana. And not just a little.

“I think I had like a half of a pound when I got caught,” he said. “I knew it was going to catch up to me eventually.”

Lawmakers are trying to decide whether legalizing recreational marijuana will put operations like this out of business, by providing the public with a legal alternative, or whether it will instead bolster the black market by fueling both supply and demand.

O’Connell said he worked his way up to buying 5-pound blocks of marijuana from a friend who worked at an out-of-state dispensary. He paid $11,000 at a time, and sold it for twice that.

After spending several months in jail, in part because the marijuana charge triggered a sentence for a previous theft conviction, O’Connell was released to live in the Dismas House, a transitional housing program for former prisoners located in Hartford. He says the structure and authority, which had been missing for his entire childhood, helped him.

“I have group sessions every Monday and Wednesday, risk reduction programming,” he said. “I have a bunch of rules. I have an 8 p.m. curfew. I can’t leave Vermont.”

He’s also not allowed to drive a vehicle, so he has to rely on rides from friends to his new job — working on engines at a local garage. He makes $10 an hour, and he puts in lots of extra shifts, which he said has helped distract him.

But last week, O’Connell hit a milestone in his rehabilitation. He’d been cleared to move into an apartment of his own, and was planning to use his savings from the garage to put down a deposit. He said he hopes to walk the straight and narrow for the four years remaining on his probation, and hopes to provide for his son and continue to work on engines.

He thinks recreational marijuana should be legalized, but he says it won’t make a personal difference to him.

“I don’t even think about smoking or anything anymore, after everything it’s cost me.”