Marijuana use is becoming more socially accepted across the nation, but in the Historic Triangle and throughout the state, residents are seeing a steady rise in marijuana-related arrests.
“We are in the middle of an (opioid) epidemic and we are taking up all these resources to send a person to rehab for using pot that could be used for a heroin addict,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director Virginia National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which has a chapter in Hampton Roads.
In York County, the number of marijuana arrests has more than doubled just in the past five years, according to data from the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. Data from James City County Police showed a 43 percent rise in the past since 2013 and Williamsburg Police data showed a 46 percent increase.
With those arrests come time and money from each locality, and across the state in 2016 taxpayers spent $81.2 million enforcing the prohibition, Pedini said.
Part of the issue is not only processing those arrests, but the consequences that follow.
In Virginia, a person carrying more than one-half ounce but not more than five pounds of marijuana is guilty of a class five felony, meaning a person could face up to 10 years in prison as well as a fine up to $2,500, according to Virginia state code.
For legalization advocates like Pedini, this raises cause for concern.
“Marijuana arrests are not expungeable so it will stay with you forever,” she said. “A college student with a joint of pot is going to be treated the same way a heroin addict would be.”
A 2017 report from the Virginia State Crime Commission showed that while many of these arrests don’t lead to jail time, they usually result in a conviction which have far-reaching consequences.
Students will have their financial aid suspended, home buyers can be denied, parents can be affected during custody agreements and many other repercussions, according to the report said.
Many of the arrests lead to rehabilitation services, which not only costs the patient but also uses resources that could be used for someone with more serious addictions, Peddini said.
“It’s taking up a seat for a heroin addict, yes, but there will be more than enough open room,” said Eric Rhodes, the director of business development at the Farley Center, a private drug rehabilitation center in Williamsburg. “We make sure to have enough beds available for anyone who needs it.”
Rhodes said the center has seen an increase in the number of patients needing treatment after being arrested for marijuana use. These patients receive the same care as a person with a heroin addiction but Rhodes said a lot of times it is necessary treatment because severe marijuana addictions show similar criteria such as cravings.
“As we see a culture growing in acceptance, we are also seeing more and more intense forms of the drug,” Rhodes said. “When we see that type of potency and people are going to the emergency room with psychiatric behaviors because of THC products, that raises a red flag.”
Rhodes is correct in noting that marijuana potency has risen in the past 40 years. A report from the Journal of Forensic Sciences showed that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, the active chemical that creates the “high” effects of marijuana, was only at about 3.8 percent in the 1990s.
In 2012, it had risen to 12.2 percent.
But the National Institute on Drug Abuse said marijuana only takes the form of addiction in severe cases. Both Rhodes and Pedini agreed that often it is used for people to simply change their state of mind and relax.
“Often people who are utilizing marijuana are functional, as opposed to other drugs where a person might not be able to get through the day,” Rhodes said. “They know they really can’t stop but they’re able to do work, normal things. It’s when you get arrested that the consequences of the drug start to impact their lives.”
A number of states across the nation have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use but the Historic Triangle still seems to be following the state trend of a steady rise in enforcement.
Rhodes and Pedini said it is only a matter of time before Virginia follows the national trend of legalization, but until then arrest numbers still reflect a local population impacted by the delay.
“These are some serious hardships that are placed on Virginians for a substance that the American public agrees should be legalized and regulated,” Pedini said.