As states across the country are relaxing their marijuana laws and federal lawmakers consider doing the same, at least one state is bucking the trend and ramping up its war on pot. Marijuana arrests in Virginia have increased dramatically over the past decade, according to a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for drug policy reform. And black Virginians account for the overwhelming majority of this increase, causing the racial disparity in the state's marijuana arrests to widen.
"Marijuana possession arrests in Virginia increased from 13,032 in 2003 to 22,948 in 2014," or 76 percent, the report finds. By contrast, the number of marijuana possession arrests nationally decreased by 6.5 percent over the same period. And Virginia's increase in arrest rates is hitting black residents the hardest. In 2003, blacks were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. By 2013 this disparity widened, and blacks were 3.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot.
Black and white Virginians use marijuana at similar rates. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, "over the extended period from 2002 to 2009, marijuana was used on an annual basis by 11.3 percent of black respondents in Virginia compared to 9.1 percent of white respondents." In other words, blacks were 24 percent more likely than whites to use marijuana, but an astonishing 233 percent more likely to be arrested for it.
In some Virginia cities, the disparity is much higher. In 2013, blacks were 5.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Norfolk. In Arlington, the black-to-white arrest ratio was 7.8.
Disparities like these have provided much of the momentum for marijuana reform in other localities, most notably DC's successful drive to legalize marijuana last year. Earlier this year, Virginia state senator Adam Ebbin introduced a bill to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession. "The racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Virginia is deeply troubling, and the barriers that a criminal record brings are particularly worrisome," he said in a statement.
Recent polls show that a majority of Virginians would take Ebbin's bill one step further by legalizing marijuana completely. In April, a Quinnipiac poll found that 54 percent of Virginians support making marijuana legal. Nationwide, nearly 60 percent of Americans support legalization.
But despite this, the arrests rise and costs associated with them mount in Virginia. The ACLU conservatively estimates that Virginia spent $67 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. That's a big chunk of change the state could be spending elsewhere, especially if you pair it with the potential for tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue from fully legal marijuana that states like Colorado are now bringing in.
Beyond that, the data show that all those expenditures on marijuana enforcement aren't doing anything to stem marijuana use rates in Virginia. In 2003, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.1 percent of Virginians said they used marijuana in the past year. By 2011, despite rising arrest rates, that number had increased slightly to 9.7 percent.
"These antiquated and extremely punitive laws, seemingly in a very targeted fashion, have served to devastate scores of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches and houses of faith in too many of Virginia’s communities," said Jesse Frierson, executive director of the Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration, in a statement on the report.
The Virginia Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.