By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications
PrisonNationally, the trend is clear – our northern neighbors, DC and Maryland, decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for adults, and arrests for possession of marijuana are declining. Unfortunately, in at least some Virginia counties, law enforcement is stepping up this failed war. Why is this a problem? Because our War on Marijuana is a failure –it’s ineffective, a waste of scarce law enforcement resources, and disproportionately impacts communities of color.
As the Washington Post reported yesterday, in Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous, arrests for possession more than doubled between 2000 and 2013 – from 1,442 to 2,918. That’s around 8 people arrested every day . . . seven days a week, 365 days a year for merely possessing marijuana. This, despite only a seventeen percent increase in Fairfax County’s population during the same period. I could think of better ways for law enforcement to spend its limited budget . . . such as focusing on violent crime. (And, let’s not forget, as pointed out in the Washington Post article, that these arrests will also involve a judge, a clerk, deputies, and prosecutors all on the taxpayer’s dime).
Fairfax’s Police Chief said that “proactive efforts” were the cause of this spike in marijuana arrests, including the use of undercover officers to sell small quantities of marijuana outside a 7-Eleven. While the Fairfax Police Chief denied the connection, many cite federal grant dollars as the reason for this increasingly aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws, as Fairfax Public Defender Todd Petit describes it. As the Washington Post wrote:
"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."
While it makes sense for profit motivated businesses to focus resources where the money is, our law enforcement agencies have a different bottom line – protecting public safety. Focusing limited law enforcement resources on enforcing marijuana possession laws not only shifts law enforcement resources away from stopping violent crimes, but it also is disproportionately impacts communities of color. As Sen. Rand Paul stated recently, “If you look at the war on drugs, 3 out of 4 people in prison are black or brown. White kids are doing it too, in fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids. But the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs.”
In Virginia, the numbers are just as alarming. As we wrote last year, in 2010, Virginia spent nearly $70,000,000 on marijuana possession enforcement and had the twelfth highest number of marijuana arrests in the U.S.  And, African Americans made up a disproportionate number of those arrested.  Overall, in 2010 African Americans in Virginia made up 19.8% of the population, yet received 43.4% of all marijuana possession arrests.  And, in many areas of Virginia it was even worse for African Americans.  In Fairfax and Loudoun for example, African Americans were approximately three times more likely to be arrested for possession.  In Arlington, African Americans were almost eight times more likely to be arrested.
It’s time for law enforcement and our lawmakers to end this failed war. Doing so will save our communities money and lessen the disproportionate harm done to communities of color … all while not harming public safety. Sounds like a win, win to us.