Differences in Arrest Rates for Marijuana Offenses across Virginia Localities

Data exhaust. In a relatively recent BR post “Marijuana arrests and racism in Virginia (especially Arlington County)” I examined the disparity between black and white Virginians when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession. My conclusion that African-American Virginians are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession came from data generated by a VCU Capital News Service study on the matter.  Helpfully, the VCU / CNS article provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the raw data (you can download the same spreadsheet from the source link under the Datawrapper graphic). As I’ve continued to examine the VCU / CNS data I’ve noticed that it’s not just your race that affects the odds of being arrested for marijuana possession.  Where you are in Virginia matters too.  A lot.

Location, location, location. The VCU / CNS spreadsheet provides the total count of marijuana arrests for every Virginia city and county from 2010 to 2016. It also provides the black and white populations of Virginia’s municipalities allowing for a per-capita arrest rate by locality. Very interesting. I analyzed the same data along a different axis … what were the odds of getting arrested for marijuana possession in the various localities regardless of race? The calculation was pretty simple:

((avg arrests – white) + (avg arrests – black)) / ((white pop) + (black pop)) 

If I understand the VCU / CNS data correctly (and I think I do) this calculation should yield the odds of getting arrested for marijuana possession by locality in any given year.

Here’s the calculation for Accomack County (first county on the alphabetical list):

(34 + 22) / (22, 759 + 9,390) = 0.18%

In an average year in Accomack County (a county with a population of approximately 32,149) there are 56 arrests for a probability of arrest of just under two tenths of one percent. In fairness, law enforcement could make an arrest in Accomack of a non-resident but that’s the basic gauge.

Reefer riskiness range. By my admittedly somewhat flawed calculation there is a reefer riskiness range of 1.64% in Colonial Heights and Emporia City (tie) down to 0.03% in the City of Charlottesville. In other words, you were 55 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2010 and 2016 in Emporia than in Charlottesville.

Quicksilver. Virginia Mercury has published an analysis of marijuana arrests for jurisdictions across Virginia using 2018 data. The Virginia Mercury article uses “arrests per 100,000 residents” as its critical metric. While this analysis helps by using the most recent data, it also is challenged by the fact that arrests in a jurisdiction are not necessarily arrests of residents of that jurisdiction. However, the disparities among jurisdictions are striking regardless of the metric used or the data considered. Rockbridge County, for example, makes marijuana arrests at the rate of 954 per 100,000 residents while the City of Charlottesville marks 95 per 100,000 residents. Henrico County checks in at 410 per 100,000, Chesterfield hits 438 per 100,000 but the City of Richmond only makes marijuana arrests at a rate of 161 per 100,000.

Roundup. There are some legitimate reasons why one Virginia jurisdiction might make more arrests per 100,000 residents than another jurisdiction. Small jurisdictions see their metrics fluctuate by the “law of small numbers.”  Jurisdictions with major highways might make more traffic stops and find more cases of marijuana possession. I also have some questions about the source data.  The VCU / CNS data, for example, shows a much lower rate of marijuana arrests in Charlottesville than does the more recent Virginia Mercury data. Both show very low rates of arrest in Charlottesville but the VCU / CNS data shows virtually no arrests.

Despite the possibility of legitimate differences among localities and the variances in the data there can be little doubt that enforcement of Virginia’s marijuana laws varies by jurisdiction. Anybody who believes that a college town like Charlottesville, Virginia, is an oasis of marijuana abstinence must be smoking some good stuff. Uneven enforcement of criminal offenses across localities is unjust. Virginia’s marijuana laws need reform. This should be a big question voters ask candidates in the run up to this Fall’s elections.

— Don Rippert