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 crime-fighting 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.
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.”
Norm Stamper, who was police chief in Seattle in the 1990s and now works with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a pro-legalization group of police and prosecutors, said many departments have become dependent on revenue from Byrne grants and asset forfeitures.
In Snohomish County, Wash., just north of Seattle, the amount of cash and property seized by the drug task force has dropped dramatically since voters decided to legalize recreational marijuana, leading the task force to cut its budget by more than 15 percent.
“If you want to keep getting the money, you feel compelled to prove you’ve done good work with it,” Stamper says. “That gets translated into SWAT raids and possession arrests. You end up with all these cool cars and your narcotics units tool around, recruiting snitches and making arrests.”
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 weed-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 tokers 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.
Roessler, Fairfax’s police chief, says the increased arrests stem from “proactive efforts” to enforce the law, without regard to shifting public opinion or political fashion. He has assigned undercover officers to make buys, and he says every Fairfax officer “is trained on routine traffic stops to take that stop one step further, so if there’s an odor of marijuana or if there’s impaired driving and reasonable suspicion, they’re going to make a search, within the law.”
The chief sees no connection between soaring arrest numbers and federal grants.
“Increasing arrests by quotas, especially for financial gain, is not something I ethically approve of, and we won’t do it,” Roessler says.
Fairfax Public Defender Todd Petit says enforcement, mainly through undercover buys, has been increasingly aggressive.
“Ten years ago, they used to do that for serious drugs,” he says. “The last few years, we’ve seen lots of small undercover marijuana buys. They’ll go to a 7-Eleven and ask someone to buy $24 worth of marijuana, which is something I used to see them do only for maybe 20 to 40 rocks of crack cocaine.”
The Fairfax commonwealth’s attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
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’m guilty,” says Richard Hannon.
“Can I ask for a lab result?” asks Daniel Starr. He’s advised to get a lawyer.
“I just want to get it over with,” says Rikki Groves, who lives in Richmond. 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 busted 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.