True: Marijuana Arrests in Virginia Still Climbing

Based on data from the latest Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia” report, Attorney General Mark R. Herring recently noted that Virginia arrests for marijuana-related charges increased 3.5% in 2018, capping off a tripling of marijuana-related arrests since 2002.

“While other states are moving to a more sensible approach to cannabis, Virginia is still moving in the wrong direction. It makes absolutely no sense,”Herring said in a press release. “Marijuana arrests are now at their highest level in at least two decades and maybe ever, meaning that even more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives. Now is the time to put a stop to this costly, unfair, and ineffective approach, and to pursue a better, smarter, fairer course.”

Yesterday I promised to take a closer look at the crime data to see if Herring’s representation of the marijuana-related arrest trends is fair. As far as I can tell, it is. But the conclusions he draws may not be.

The graph above compares two trend lines: arrests for marijuana-related charges and arrests for all other drug-related charges. The data shows a steady climb in marijuana arrests, interrupted by a brief decline in 2014 and 2015, and then a sharp rebound, reaching a record 28,866 arrests in 2018.

While marijuana arrests more than doubled, increasing 101% over the 16-year period, arrests for all other drugs climbed only 52%.

Remarkably, the surge in marijuana arrests in the past three years coincides with increasing sentiment among the public, the political class and even law enforcement that marijuana use should be decriminalized. I am at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the increasing public tolerance of marijuana with the higher arrest rate — the gap is something that needs to be explained.

I looked for clues in the arrest trends for other drugs, including cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.

One highly positive trend is the dramatic fall-off in crack-related arrests since 2006. Cocaine-related arrests also have declined since then as well, although there has been a rebound in the past three years.

Especially disturbing is the increase in heroin-related arrests since 2012, and the sharp upturn in amphetamine/methamphetamine-related arrests since 2014.

I would conjecture that the arrest trends in these four drugs mirrors the incidence of usage and trafficking. Similarly, one might hypothesize that the long-term climb in marijuana-related arrests likewise matches an increase in usage and trafficking. Consistent with this interpretation is a study cited in Newsweek  that found that 12.9 percent of adults had used marijuana in 2015, up from the 6.7 percent a decade previously.

As for the conclusions Herring draws from the arrest data… The AG contends that “more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives.” I don’t see how that statement is supported by the state police crime reports.

The state police reports do not tell us how many of those arrested for marijuana possession were charged, or convicted, or jailed/imprisoned. Police may be making more arrests for marijuana-related offenses, but that doesn’t mean prosecutors are pressing charges or that judges are sending people to jail. To determine if Virginians “are being saddled with criminal records,” or that their lives are otherwise affected, we need to review the data for prosecutions, convictions, and imprisonment. I don’t know if anyone compiles those numbers. If some alert readers knows where I can find that data, please let me know.

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12 responses to “True: Marijuana Arrests in Virginia Still Climbing”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I think a lot of people holding or using are just getting careless, forgetting that Virginia is not one of the states which has relaxed its laws yet.

  2. CrazyJD Avatar


    I think the answer to your puzzlement is contained in your statement of that puzzlement.

    >>Remarkably, the surge in marijuana arrests in the past three years coincides with increasing sentiment among the public, the political class and even law enforcement that marijuana use should be decriminalized.>>

    Kids engage more because they believe press clippings about how it’s legal in so many places. They are not lawyers, so they do not understand how it could be legal in one place and not another. They carry it around more, and they therefore get caught more. If they’re caught with it, the police don’t have much choice but to arrest. They are bound to enforce the law that is on the books. It’s up to the Commonwealth’s attorneys whether they prosecute. It’s really very simple.

    1. Crazy, I’ve got a question for you: How accurate and/or meaningful is it to say that being arrested can “saddle [people] with criminal records” if the individual is never prosecuted or convicted? Does the arrest become a permanent part of one’s record, and, if so, can that record be used against him? Most employment forms that I’ve seen ask if someone has been convicted of a crime.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    The data requested by Jim related to convictions and incarcerations for possession of marijuana are buried in records of the judiciary, which are notoriously non-user friendly. To my knowledge, they are not compiled and generally available. Fortunately, however, the very able staff of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission have access to this data and are adept at using it.

    One of their uses is in the preparation of fiscal impact statements for proposed legislation. This past session saw numerous bills related to marijuana possession and in its impact statement for some of these bills, the Commission included a table showing the number of convictions and sentencing information for the various categories of marijuana offenses. The impact statement for one of the bills, with the accompanying table can be found here:

    Note that these are convictions: Any data on not guilty or dismissed cases is not included. One would have to compare the arrest data with this conviction data to get a sense of how many arrests are not prosecuted, dismissed, or found not guilty.

    1. Thanks for that citation, Dick. For those too lazy to click through to the impact statement, here is the key chart:

  4. The data above seem to indicate that not a lot of simple marijuana-possession cases resulted in jail time — only 10% for first-time offenders. And the sentences were short — 10 days on average for first-time offenders. So, to Herring’s point, the marijuana arrest does show up as a “criminal record” for many. But the jail time is pretty minimal.

  5. NorrhsideDude Avatar

    Are some of those possession charges actually the result of pleading down to the possession?
    So is this increase an actual indicator that the Northam and Herring Virginia Justice system is actually more systemically racist? Does the data work against Ds as well as Rs?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      If Virginia’s justice system is systematically racist, what does that say about Governors Wilder, Warner, Kaine and McAuliffe? Northam is clearly the most disgusting person in American p0litics today. Trump and the two Clintons represent the bottom but Northam makes them look honest and decent.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    For several years, I have wondered why the arrests for marijuana possession have been increasing. After all, as Jim pointed out in his original post, society is more accepting of marijuana today. In meetings with law enforcement officials, I asked about this increase that seems to be going in the opposite direction of societal norms. Those officials did not really have an answer; some tried to blame the increase on the legalization in other states with folks in Virginia then bringing it in. In meetings with people who deal with this data, there was the suggestion that, with other types of crime down, the police had more time on their hands and were using it to bust marijuana users. So far, I have not heard a clearly convincing answer.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I suspect if we could look at the data geographically, it would tell us where stricter enforcement is taking place – and not.

    This goes to selective enforcement of the law – which can vary by jurisdiction.

    And I don’t really buy the “we have no choice but to charge” – if that were true 85% of us would receive multiple speeding tickets!

    Finally, politically, is this something the GOP could grab hold of and essentially take that issue away from the Dems?

  8. Seems that 30,000 arrests for simple possession, assuming the arrested are voters, is 30,000 more votes for legalization.

  9. Policy Student Avatar
    Policy Student

    I can confirm that some Virginia employers do consider drug arrest records in hiring/ firing decisions. The EEOC states that arrests are not “probative of criminal conduct” but an employer “may act based on evidence of conduct that disqualifies an individual for a particular position.” FCRA and Title VII place some restrictions on background check usage. I am unaware of any metrics regarding drug arrests and employment effects, but think it’s an interesting topic. I would love to see quantitative work in this area. Perhaps I’ll explore one day.

    EEOC guidance:

    Attorney claim re arrest effects (relies on case studies)

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