Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jun 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Marc Fisher
Page: A1


Steep Rise in Arrests Reveals Disparities in Legal Approach

Weirton, W.VA. - Taped to the wall of pride inside the Hancock County 
drug task force's bare-bones office, a snapshot of eight marijuana 
plants draped over coat hangers serves as evidence of one more small 
triumph in the war on weed.

That same image of a drug-filled closet is seared in Ryan Neeley's 
memory, but with a very different meaning. To Neeley, the photo is 
proof that in the same country where a town in Colorado features a 
marijuana vending machine, the same country with a president who said 
it is wrong for "only a select few" to be punished for smoking pot, 
possession of the drug can still be a life-altering experience, and 
not in a good way.

The weed in the photograph was drying on hangers in the house where 
Neeley and his friends live, and when members of the 
Hancock-Brooke-Weirton drug task force showed up there in January and 
served a warrant, they arrested one resident and seized two pounds of 
marijuana and the materials used to grow and pack it.

Here in West Virginia's northern panhandle, marijuana possession 
arrests soared by more than 2,000 percent in the first decade of this 
century. It was the biggest arrest-rate jump of any locality in the 
nation, although in a county of just 30,000, that amounts to only a 
few dozen cases. Raids like the one at Neeley's house are a vital 
weapon, says Mark Simala, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who 
runs the task force from an unmarked office building in this 
struggling mill town - a place he calls "ground zero for the drug 
war" because traffickers use the area as a path from Pittsburgh, 
about 35 miles away, to cities in the Midwest.

"Arresting them's easy," says Sgt. Brian Allen, a state trooper 
assigned to the task force. "Marijuana is everywhere around here."

But even as marijuana use increases across the nation - the number of 
smokers jumped 20 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to a 
federal survey - enforcement of laws against the drug is diminishing 
in most places. Possession arrest numbers nationwide had increased in 
the early 2000s, but from 2007 to 2012, the number of possession 
arrests per day of marijuana use fell 42 percent, according to an 
analysis of crime data by Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University 
psychiatrist and former senior drug policy adviser to the Obama administration.

The exceptions to that trend - places such as Hancock County and 
Virginia's Fairfax County, where arrests more than doubled between 
2000 and 2013 - reveal that huge disparities persist in law 
enforcement's approach to marijuana for three reasons:

A gateway: Some police see marijuana as a pathway to addictive 
prescription pills, heroin and cocaine. Cracking down on pot will cut 
the supply and use of those harder drugs, they say.

But others in law enforcement see no such nexus, saying that people 
arrested for marijuana possession rarely have any connection to more 
addictive drugs. In Brooklyn, the district attorney announced in 
April that his office would stop prosecuting people arrested for 
possession of less than two ounces of marijuana.

Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, who runs a 26-man force, says 
that although "heroin is our new problem drug, it all starts with 
marijuana. The [arrest] numbers are up because we're getting more 
efficient and there's more use." He has no intention of easing off on 
possession arrests.

Marijuana, argues Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr., has 
become more of a gateway drug as it's been refined to be far stronger 
than decades ago. Weed, he says, is a growing source of the county's 
problem with impaired driving, making arrests a priority.

"My mission is to fight crime, and drug offenses are crimes," 
Roessler says. "We abide by the laws of Fairfax County and the 
commonwealth of Virginia. If the U.S. Justice Department has a 
different position, that's their position. It's our goal to be more 
proactive and fight this product."

Up the drug ladder: Some police believe that marijuana possession 
arrests provide a unique opportunity to capture dealers whose sales 
of heroin and meth are ravaging many U.S. communities.

Justice Department officials say they want task forces to focus on 
high-level dealers of the most dangerous drugs. But Fletcher argues 
that pot possession arrests lead police up the ladder of drug crime.

"The young person with just a couple buds says, 'I can't afford to go 
to jail and lose my job,' " Fletcher says. "He says, 'It's just 
grass! Johnny down the street's selling OxyContin!' And you say, 
'Okay, well, can you buy some from Johnny for us?' And there we go. 
You catch what you can and move up the grapevine to catch what you 
really need to catch."

Federal funding: In the hurried drive to stimulate the nation's 
economy after the start of the Great Recession, the federal 
government pumped more than $4 billion into its main crimefighting 
grant program, known as Byrne grants, and expanded other programs to 
bolster enforcement.

That, critics say, has skewed policing toward more drug arrests- and 
in many places, marijuana arrests - because they are easy to make.

Grants to states and localities are not contingent on increasing drug 
arrests, but federal officials acknowledge that many police chiefs 
and sheriffs believe racking up arrests bolsters their case for money 
they have come to depend on.

"Every year, you'd say, ' This is what we did, these are our 
arrests,' and you'd get the federal money," says Art Watson, chief 
deputy sheriff in Hancock County. The sheriff 's office uses grant 
money to fund one of the two deputies it assigns to the drug task 
force and to pay overtime to officers.

Denise O'Donnell, who runs the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, 
which administers the Byrne grants, says her agency is examining 
whether the program "is somehow incentivizing agencies to make more 
low-level arrests."

She says she's trying to "correct that misconception" by spreading 
the message that "it's really important that these funds be used 
against high-level organizations and not in a way that's creating any 
disproportionate impact on people of color."

Studies by academics and the American Civil Liberties Union have 
concluded that non-whites are far more likely to be arrested for 
possessing marijuana, despite government surveys showing use to be 
equally prevalent across races.

In Weirton, Neeley can't square what happened to him and his friends 
with what he sees across the country, as marijuana comes out from the 
shadows and a huge industry of growers and marketers emerges in the 
two states that have legalized the drug and the 20 other states and 
the District that allow medical marijuana.

Neeley, 38, who was charged with marijuana possession in a separate 
case this year, says the police "are after anyone who's a hippie. 
We're not bad people. We're just trying to make it. We only sell to friends."

Neeley, who manages a rock band, says marijuana helped him kick an 
addiction to opiates that began with a back injury and turned into a 
decade of darkness. "I smoke pot to get away from the opiates when I 
get the craving," he says. "We're not drug dealers. I mean, the 
problem is heroin, and we don't touch that. We're pot smokers that 
get together to play music."

The arrest has complicated his life enough - making it hard to find 
work - that Neeley plans to move across the line to Pennsylvania, 
where he says enforcement is less strict.

"It makes me angry, because there are so many places where it's maybe 
not legal, but they've stopped enforcing the law," he says. "But 
here, the more arrests they have, the more money they get." In a 
rickety trailer on the main street of Newell, the northernmost hamlet 
in West Virginia, Alice and Glenn Phillips have only a few photos and 
a raft of court documents to remind them of the 27 acres where they 
used to raise thoroughbred horses and, according to prosecutors and a 
judge, marijuana.

"Genesis 1:29 says all herbs bearing seeds are here for you," Glenn 
Phillips, 70, recites. Close enough: The actual Scripture reads, 
"Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed." His point is that 
marijuana, which he has smoked since his Army days in Vietnam, is 
natural, God-given and should not have led to the loss of his property.

Hancock County's drug task force found more than 100 marijuana plants 
there in 2004 and took the couple's land and horses. After years of 
legal battles, the sheriff 's office now uses the place as a shooting range.

"They took everything we had," says Glenn. He and Alice, 60, were 
convicted of cultivating marijuana. He did 21/2 years in prison; she 
served one year. Their son, who is 40, was arrested for possession of 
marijuana in a separate case.

The couple rail against the county's aggressive stance on marijuana, 
especially because weed is so common that the Phillipses say they 
have smoked with relatives of the officers who raided their property.

"It's everywhere, but they keep arresting people because that's how 
they pay their salaries," Glenn says. "They live off what they confiscate."

There's a knock at the door, a guy asking if the Phillipses have 
something. They ask him to come back later.

In West Virginia, the drive against marijuana is gaining resources 
and getting results. The state police's marijuana eradication program 
doubled its efforts in the year after the recession started. Federal 
funding of the program jumped from $338,000 to $576,000, enabling the 
state police to devote more troopers to the effort. They found and 
destroyed more than 235,000 plants in 2010, six times as many as they 
had in 2007.

Christopher Scheetz, a lawyer who defends many clients facing drug 
charges, says that prosecutors have eased off on seeking jail time in 
most marijuana cases but that police remain gung-ho about making arrests.

"Since heroin came around, I've been able to argue to prosecutors 
that ' This is just marijuana,' " Scheetz says at his one-man office 
next to a convenience store in Follansbee, near Weirton. "But the 
police are still in their Reagan-era, tough-on-crime stage, and they 
prove that by arrest rates."

Hancock County's primary weapon against marijuana is traffic stops, 
the sheriff says, especially along roads that cut across the 
panhandle, linking dealers from Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and 
Youngstown, Ohio.

"You're looking for anything unusual," Fletcher says. "Their 
demeanor, the smell."

In one recent case, an officer "smelled the marijuana off the papers, 
the registration and insurance," he says. One of Hancock County's 
four drug-sniffing K-9 units was called in and an arrest was made.

Hancock's possession cases usually result in a misdemeanor charge and 
a year's probation, with a chance to expunge the arrest if there are 
no further incidents.

Possession arrests are so easy that it's not fair, Scheetz says: 
"Really, potheads are easy to find. They don't even deny it. They're 
growing it for themselves and maybe some friends."

Police and weed smokers agree that the disparities in how marijuana 
laws are enforced in different places have become so extreme that 
people under arrest often argue with officers about the fairness of 
enforcing a law that is ignored or defunct elsewhere.

In Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, police who find 
pot plants in the homes of people they are arresting on other charges 
"have to literally walk away from the plants," says Chief John 
Jackson of Greenwood Village, Colo. "It's considered personal 
property. If we seize it, we have to keep those plants alive or 
compensate the user."

Fletcher, for his part, says he pays no mind to the cultural or legal 
debate over marijuana, a drug he calls dangerous, habit-forming and 
much stronger than it once was.

"You have politicians who look at marijuana as being not such a bad 
thing because they blew a little dope 40 years ago," he says. "And we 
have leadership in Washington, D.C., now that says certain laws are 
beneath them. Well, you can't say, 'Boys, that's just marijuana- 
ignore that.' " A few blocks from the Phillipses' trailer, on a 
street of tidy houses just up from the Ohio River, Beverly Enochs and 
Sue Thompson sing the praises of the drug task force. Last year, the 
women summoned the sheriff and other authorities to a town meeting 
that drew more than 200 people in a place where only 1,400 live. 
Residents confronted officials with the damage heroin was doing to 
their neighborhood - unprecedented fear and suspicion, and a string 
of burglaries by addicts looking for anything they could sell.

The response was swift and dramatic. Officers swarmed the tiny town 
day and night. Then lawmen raided Newell and arrested 39 people on 
heroin, meth, cocaine and marijuana charges.

The devastation that heroin and prescription pills have visited upon 
the county is plain in the gaunt faces and wrecked teeth of addicts 
on downtown streets and up in the hills. Marijuana, Thompson and 
Enochs say, is not the problem.

"We don't smoke pot," says Enochs, 63, "but that's gone on forever 
around here. Most people are to the point where they don't even mind 
the marijuana. Heroin is what's killing our kids. They die with the 
needle in their arms."

"I wonder if it's even worth the effort to go after the pot," says 
Thompson, 67.

Thompson and Enochs, old friends, consult with each other regularly 
on their bucket lists, their catalogue of things to do before they 
die. "Maybe I should put ' smoking marijuana' on my list," Enochs 
says. "If it's going to be legal, I should see what all the fuss is about."

Thompson's eyes grow wide: "Oh, no, no - I would never. Bev, you 
shouldn't. You wouldn't, right?"

"I don't know," Enochs replies. "Maybe I would."

The friends laugh, but their sheriff has little patience for the idea 
that there's anything benign about marijuana, even as he recognizes 
that hardly any taboo remains around pot, even across generations.

"We have grandfathers smoking up with their grandchildren," Fletcher 
says. "What's wrong with this society?"

A check for $23,500 sits on the table next to the bagels and cream 
cheese in the drug task force's office, money seized this year when 
the unit followed up on a call from California police about a UPS 
package that had been sent from San Bernardino to Hundred, W.Va., two 
hours south of Weirton.

The task force dressed a trooper in a brown UPS uniform and sent him 
to deliver the box. After the woman inside, Nelda White, 54, took in 
the package, task force members knocked on her door. The box 
contained a pound of marijuana. Officers confiscated a load of cash 
from the house, arrested White and charged her with possession with 
intent to distribute marijuana.

"When we get big money, it's from marijuana," Simala says. The task 
force keeps 80 percent of the cash it seizes and uses the money for 
its $1,250 monthly rent, equipment and vehicles and to fund 
undercover drug buys. "Without seized money, we wouldn't be in business."

Allen holds up the check: "$23,500- that's a good hit."

Simala chuckles: "We take marijuana very seriously."

Funds from seizures have become crucial to the task force's ability 
to sustain itself because federal grants have been tapering off.

Hancock County, Weirton and the state police provide officers to the 
task force, and Byrne grant dollars pay for one of the two sheriff 's 
deputies assigned from Hancock. But the federal money "has dwindled," 
Watson says. "Now you're lucky to get your hours paid."

Another federal program, focusing on places with heavy drug 
trafficking, provides the task force with about $40,000 a year for 
overtime and drug buys.

To keep the federal money they do get, the task force fills out 
quarterly reports listing arrests, seizures and other achievements.

"We're judged by what we accomplished last year," Simala says. "It's 
the arrest numbers and the impact of the cases."

The sheriff agrees: "They look at your productivity, your numbers, 
what you've done in the past. They look at arrests and compare you to 
national numbers and measure your need."

Not true, insists O'Donnell. Her program's grants went from $457 
million in 2010 to $345 million last year, with $320 million proposed 
for next year.

O'Donnell said the Byrne program does nothing to encourage local 
authorities to focus on possession arrests. The federal program 
doesn't hand out money based on the merits of an application, but 
rather on a strict formula that looks only at population and crime rate.

Still, when police chiefs and sheriffs look at the application and 
see more than 150 requests for statistics such as number of arrests 
and guns seized, they figure that's how they are being judged, said 
Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York 
University's Brennan Center.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom