Pubdate: Sun, 06 Jul 2014
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2014 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Marc Fisher, The Washington Post
Page: 19


Many Areas Make Peace With Pot, but Some Cops Ramping Up Arrests

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. 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 2 pounds of 
marijuana and 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 jump in arrest rate of any locality in 
the nation, although in a county of just 30,000 residents, 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 Midwestern cities including Chicago.

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

But as marijuana use grows 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 declined 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 will stop prosecuting people arrested for 
possessing less than 2 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 County police Chief Edwin 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.

Up the drug ladder: Some police believe 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, 'OK, 
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 crime-fighting 
grant program, known as Byrne grants, as well as expanding 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.

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."

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 of Columbia 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 somany 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."

Seed-bearing herbs

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 verse 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, 70. He and Alice, 60, were 
both convicted of cultivating marijuana; he did 21 years in prison; 
she served one. 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, an attorney who defends many clients facing drug 
charges, says that prosecutors have eased off on seeking jail time in 
most marijuana cases but that the 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."

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

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 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. "Andwe 
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 two 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 catalog 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."

Drug money seized

A check for $23,500 sits on the table next to the bagels and cream 
cheese in the drug task force 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."

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

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 howthey are being judged, said 
Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York 
University's Brennan Center.

For example, a question on the Byrne program's Performance Management 
Tool asks, "What was the total number of individuals (including gang 
members) arrested ... ?" The next question asks, "How many arrests 
were drug related?" Another question asks how much marijuana was seized.

Even though the Obama Justice Department says it does not encourage 
marijuana possession arrests, Chettiar says police chiefs and 
sheriffs "conclude that's what the federal government wants them to 
do. Then officers get promoted and get pay increases based on 
increased arrests."

Slap on the wrist

In Courtroom 2J of the Fairfax County Courthouse in Northern 
Virginia, District Judge Mitchell Mutnick rips through the 16 cases 
on this day's marijuana docket in 36 minutes.

Almost all of the cases start with traffic stops - no seat belt, 
erratic driving, during which officers smelled or saw weed or related 
materials. The judge reels off the options facing the defendants, 
nearly all of them between ages 18 and 30: "The maximum penalty is a 
$500 fine, 30 days in jail, six months loss of privilege to operate a 
motor vehicle."

Prosecutors don't seek jail in first-time possession cases.

Mutnick offers the assembled a choice: Diversion, in which their 
arrest record may be expunged if they do 24 hours of community 
service, attend 20 hours of a drug education course, pay $350 and 
accept a six-month suspension of their driver's license; or take 
their chances and go to trial, in which case they could get a bigger 
punishment or, if they win, walk away cleared. Very few take the risk 
of a trial.

Marijuana possession arrests in Fairfax have more than doubled in the 
past 14 years, from 1,442 in 2000 to 2,918 last year, during a period 
when the county's population rose by 17 percent.

Some defense lawyers see no rationale for making arrests on cases 
that prosecutors and courts agree merit no more than a slap on the wrist.

"It's such a giant waste of money to run a courtroom just to deal 
with marijuana possession," says Lindsey Lawson, a Fairfax defense 
lawyer who handles many traffic-stop cases. "It's a judge, a clerk, 
deputies and prosecutors, all there essentially for that federal grant money."

Back in Courtroom 2J, most people choose diversion, but four elect to 
be tried immediately.

"I just want to get it over with," says Rikki Groves, of Richmond, 
Va. She pleads not guilty. Dressed in a long black coat and black, 
fingerless gloves, Groves steps into the well of the court. The 
trooper who stopped her car tells the judge that she had been driving 
with a broken headlamp.

The officer asked whether he could search her car, she acceded, and 
he found a mason jar with a device for smoking marijuana and a pink 
bag containing "a green plantlike material."

Groves declines to offer any defense, and the judge fines her $50 and 
suspends her license for six months. Elapsed time of trial: four minutes.
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