In West Virginia's northern panhandle, marijuana possession arrests soared 2,000 percent in the first decade of this century, says the Washington Post. It was the biggest arrest-rate jump of any locality in the nation. Drug raids there are a vital weapon, says Mark Simala, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who runs a task force from a place he calls “ground zero for the drug war” because traffickers use the area as a path from nearby Pittsburgh to cities in the Midwest. As marijuana use increases across the U.S., enforcement of laws against the drug is diminishing in most places. Possession arrest numbers nationwide increased in the early 2000s, but from 2007 to 2012, possession arrests for marijuana use fell 42 percent, says Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatrist and ex-Obama administration drug policy adviser. The exceptions to that trend, including places like Hancock County, W. Va., and Virginia's Fairfax County, where arrests more than doubled between 2000 and 2013, show that huge disparities persist in law enforcement's approach to marijuana. Some police see marijuana as a pathway to addictive prescription pills, heroin and cocaine.
Some police believe marijuana possession arrests provide a unique opportunity to capture dealers whose sales of heroin and meth are ravaging many U.S. communities. In the drive to stimulate the economy after the start of the Great Recession, the federal government pumped $4 billion into its Byrne grant program and expanded other programs to bolster enforcement. Critics say that has skewed policing toward more drug 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. Denise O'Donnell, who runs the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, says her agency is examining whether the program “is somehow incentivizing agencies to make more low-level arrests.” She says she's trying to “correct that misconception” by spreading the message that “it's really important that these funds be used against high-level organizations and not in a way that's creating any disproportionate impact on people of color.”