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 

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11 responses to “Differences in Arrest Rates for Marijuana Offenses across Virginia Localities

  1. Don, could you provide your “reefer riskiness” index by locality and append it to the comments so readers can look for other patterns in the arrest data?

    • I’m out of the country but will try to provide the data across localities. Worst case, I’ll publish a short article with that data once I return.

  2. Uniform enforcement of drug offenses statewide? What happened to your idea that government closest to the people governs best? What happened to your conviction that the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond is likely to bollux everything? Perhaps you can reconcile this seeming contradiction for your loyal readers.

    • I’d be happy for localities to enact their own marijuana possession laws. However, having state laws that are arbitrarily enforced by local law enforcement seems backwards to me. If this should be a local matter then de-evolve it to city councils and county boards of supervisors. If this is to remain in the scope of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond then people in Rockbridge County should not be held more accountable to the same ill-advised state laws than the people of the City of Charlottesville.

      Maybe Fairfax County ought to protect its citizens from enforcement of the state’s income tax laws since those taxes are wasted elsewhere in the state. No, the state ought to do less and tax less and let jurisdictions do more (or less) and tax more (or less). Once the General Assembly and all statewide offices are in Democratic hands I suspect you’ll start to see the wisdom of greater local governance. Either that or you’ll need to blow the cobwebs off your wallet come tax time.

  3. Hypothesis: It’s traffic stops, at least in part. Overlay the Interstates on that VA Mercury map. Some of those localities may also have heavier Interstate traffic stops because they have local ordinances and impose local fines to fatten their budgets. Window rolls down and the cop gets to smell the interior atmosphere, and a search follows. Colonial Heights was famous for its traffic enforcement along U.S. 1 for decades, with the most obvious speed trap in walking distance of the courthouse. And, as previously noted, the stoners can’t keep track of what state has what laws….. Would love to have someone from law enforcement weigh in. Those Interstates are also major corridors for all drug trafficking and lots of other bad behavior, so I don’t want cops ignoring things when when smell reefer – search the car.

    Uh, Don – your vision of what to expect in Blue Virginia is the best laugh I’ve had in days. No libertarian streak in that crowd, trust me. No interest in shifting power away from Richmond.

    • Traffic stops along busy highways undoubtedly explains some of it. But Arlington at less than one half the rate of Fairfax County? And Danville at 10 times the rate of Pittsylvania County (which surrounds Danville)? Rockbridge at 15X the rate of adjacent Augusta County? And Augusta County at 1/7th the rate of the City of Staunton which is entirely encircled by Augusta County?

      And the whole issue of cops claiming to smell “the dank weed” in order to bypass the need for a warrant to search a car deserves scrutiny too. At least one former DEA agent has admitted that he often lied about smelling pot in order to conduct illegal searches of cars. He even described how he could get his drug sniffing dog to falsely alert.

    • As far as “the stoners” not being able to keep track of applicable law … I doubt it. I think it’s availability. Once pot is decriminalized (like in Maryland and effectively in North Carolina) … supplies increase. Once medical marijuana is legalized (like in Maryland) …. supplies increase. And once possession of small amounts of marijuana is legalized (like in DC) …. supplies increase.

      As far as my vision of blue Virginia (the state, not the blog) … they won’t dilute Dillon’s Rule (at least, not much). But they will decriminalize marijuana possession and they will raise taxes. It will be the conservative Republicans who will be screaming for more local autonomy once it is clear that Virginia has gone blue. And watching the wholly inept RPV become spokespeople against Dillon’s Rule will be hilarious.

    • As for cops searching cars when they claim to smell marijuana … localities should publish statistics on how often those searches actually find the marijuana the cops supposedly smelled. Localities where there is a high incidence of “false positives” ought to be subject to significant lawsuits from the people who were illegally and unconstitutionally searched.

      Also, want to bet how often police “smell marijuana” when the driver is black rather than white?

  4. Emporia is one of those jurisdictions where the city’s coffer-stuffing traffic enforcement on I-95 is among the worst in the state and probably the East Coast. By itself, that enforcement might easily explain the 1.64% risk rate. It would be interesting to compare that rate with Hopewell’s rate, which has the same coffer-stuffing traffic enforcement on a small section of I-295.

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