For many years in West Virginia, there have been more marijuana arrests on an annual basis than arrests for all other drugs combined.
FBI statistics show that in 2012, there were about 7,900 drug arrests in West Virginia, including about 4,200 for marijuana, or around 53 percent.
Most of the marijuana arrests in 2012, about 3,700, were for possession.
Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project and native West Virginian, sees the figures as a case of misplaced priorities.
“I don’t think anybody thinks marijuana is half of West Virginia’s drug problem anymore,” Simon said. “It’s clear West Virginia has much more severe problems with prescription drugs, methamphetamine and increasingly heroin.”
Widespread use is the reason marijuana arrests make up the majority of drug arrests, according to Lt. Chad Napier, Charleston Police bureau chief of investigative services.
“It’s one of the most commonly abused drugs,” he said. “Being that it is, when you make other arrests, people a lot of times will have it on them.”
The combined 2011-2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Surveys on Drug Use and Health found that one in ten West Virginians age 12 and older had used marijuana in the past month.
Among those aged 18-25, nearly one in three had used the drug.
Kanawha County Sheriff’s Spokesman Cpl Brian Humphreys said most of the marijuana arrests he has conducted were “things that I stumbled upon.”
“It’s just so prevalent that it’s easy to find while you’re investigating another crime, “ he said. “I would say I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve cited someone only with possession of marijuana.”
Simon said he understood the drug’s arrest rates are because of high prevalence.
“They’re enforcing the laws that are on the books,” he said. “Only the Legislature can change those laws.”
But he also said police officers have incentives to make arrests, including federal funding and asset forfeiture.
“Law enforcement spends quite a lot of money and quite a lot of manpower flying around in helicopters and trying to eliminate every marijuana plant,” he said. “That’s what they’ve been asked to do by the Legislature, but at the end of the day, does that benefit West Virginia?”
An ACLU report found the state spent about $17.4 million in police, judicial, legal and correctional expenses on marijuana possession arrests in 2010.
Napier said the rate of marijuana possession arrests at his department is not because of any sort of zealous effort.
“I don’t know anybody that goes and says my goal today is to find somebody that’s simple possession use of marijuana,” he said. “Matter of fact, it’s almost like ‘I found it, I gotta deal with it now.’ Because the courts we know aren’t going to do anything to these people, so now we gotta do a bunch of paperwork, because we did arrest someone for simple possession of marijuana.”
Napier said officers get frustrated because the penalties for marijuana possession aren’t strict enough to deter use.
“Simple possession of marijuana is almost like getting a traffic ticket,” he said. “First offense is $50 and no jail time, so it’s almost like running a red light.”
While he thinks jail time for a first use would be overkill, he also wants officers’ time to be put to good use.
“Should we put them in jail?” he said. “No, the jails are full... Maybe the penalty shouldn’t be a lot harsher, but you can’t make it until there’s no penalty at all.”
Napier, who has worked in drug work his entire career, sees investigating marijuana crimes as an important part of police work.
He said his interviews with drug abusers have taught him that marijuana is often a “gateway drug” to other illegal substances.
He is also opposed to marijuana legalization because he doesn’t want young people to perceive the drug as safe.
“It depresses you,” he said. “It doesn’t motivate you. It robs you. You take anybody that’s went through rehab for marijuana -- it just robs your life. You don’t want to get a job. The country’s not going to make it like that.”
Napier also takes issue with the perception that marijuana is not addictive because marijuana users check into rehab.
He pointed to news he read out of Colorado, where marijuana has been legalized.
Ben Court, an addictions expert at the University of Colorado Hospital Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation (CeDAR), told ABC News that ever since medical marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2009 he’s seen an increase in patients coming for treatment for marijuana addiction.
“There’s just not a lot of good that comes from marijuana,” Napier said. “We’re saying we should give everyone the free choice, but when you do that, you affect kids.”
Simon and Napier also disagreed on whether legalization would reduce violence associated with drug markets.
“We know marijuana use doesn’t cause violence,” Simon said. “Marijuana markets do include violence, particularly south of the border, but also domestically.”
Napier said other drugs would take marijuana’s place.
“If you legalize marijuana, they’re going to push other drugs really hard,” he said. “It’s not like the cartels are going to say ‘oh, we’re done, we’re going to switch to candy.’”
A review of West Virginia drug arrests since 2000 found that marijuana arrests made up more than 50 percent every year.
In earlier years, marijuana arrests made up 60-75 percent of drug arrests.
Marijuana arrests made up 7 percent of total arrests for all crimes in 2012.
Simon said those arrests take time away from investigating other crimes that should be higher priority, including violent and property crimes.
“We would strongly encourage the Legislature to revisit those penalties and reconsider whether marijuana possession should really be a crime,” he said. “People may not be ready for legalization and having stores open to sell marijuana in West Virginia right away, but at least reducing the penalty I think is something that could find support in Charleston.”
He thinks it’s time the Legislature should cut their losses.
“I think when these laws were passed, there was a belief they would actually work, that they would drastically reduce or eliminate marijuana use,” he said. “That’s not what we’ve seen over the past several decades. It’s widely used.”
Reach Erin Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5163 or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.