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8News Investigates: The Price of Policing Pot in Virginia

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The number of arrests for marijuana possession is increasing in Virginia, costing taxpayers big bucks (Matthew Staver/The Washington Post/Getty Images via ABC News) The number of arrests for marijuana possession is increasing in Virginia, costing taxpayers big bucks (Matthew Staver/The Washington Post/Getty Images via ABC News)

The number of arrests for marijuana possession is increasing in Virginia, costing taxpayers big bucks.

The Commonwealth ranks 12th in the nation when it comes to marijuana arrests, and ABC 8News has uncovered that Virginia is spending millions to prosecute what are mostly simple possession charges.

Our neighbors in Washington, D.C. and Maryland have recently moved to decriminalize marijuana possession. The question is, should Virginia be next?

It’s now OK in some states to take a hit; two states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and 20 states have gotten more lenient when it comes to pot. But in Virginia, marijuana arrests are on the rise.

Marijuana arrests are keeping local criminal defense attorney Ken Chrisman in the courtroom most of the week.

“I see a lot of people being arrested; there doesn’t seem to be any let-up,” he said.

According to the most recent FBI statistics, statewide marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug offenses. Of those marijuana offenses, 88 percent are for possession—not distribution, not growing, not selling, but possession.

“We are talking about simple possession, and in many cases, small amounts,” Chrisman said. “I think it does clog up our courts, and I think it takes valuable police resources away form more serious matters.”

By the time a misdemeanor pot case goes through the system, it’s touched by a police officer, at least two prosecutors, a judge, a clerk, a defense attorney and a probation officer—many times, at your cost.

Using FBI crime statistics, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates Virginia spends $67 million a year policing pot.

A report done by a professor at Harvard University finds the cost is as high as $125 million a year.

“We are putting our scarce tax dollars, our scarce law enforcement dollars to enforcing something that has really no violent impact on the community,” said Frank Knaack of the Virginia ACLU.

One state lawmaker wants to do something about it; he’s considering decriminalization, in other words, easing the laws. This means no jail time, no criminal record and lower fines for those caught with weed.

“The current system is unfair to people who have medical conditions, who need access to marijuana,” Delegate Ken Plum said. “It’s unfair to people who have some limited recreational use and are not going to abuse the drug.”

The nonprofit Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is all for it; they’re lobbying other lawmakers.

“We are giving many thousands of people criminal records for using a substance that really is safer than almost any other substance, definitely safer than alcohol and tobacco, which are legal,” said Ed McCann, the executive director of Virginia NORML.

But lightening the pot laws will be a tough sell.

Law enforcement like Sergeant Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, argues that what we save in patrols and court costs could cost us lives.

“We see it creating a lot more problems,” he said.

He worries if Virginia eases the pot laws, it will result in more impaired drivers on the road.

“You know, we have enough fatalities already of people driving under the influence of alcohol,” Carroll said.

Others say a drug is a drug.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Regina Whitsett, interim executive director of Chesterfield SAFE. “It is psychologically addictive and it affects your short-term memory.”

Still, many believe a lot of people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens are ending up in handcuffs.

“Many of my clients—in fact, I would say the majority of my clients—arrested for possession of marijuana [have] no other criminal offenses whatsoever,” Chrisman said.

Here in Central Virginia, Chrisman told ABC 8News Anchor/Investigative Reporter Kerri O’Brien that on any given day, about 10 percent of all the misdemeanor cases on the docket are for marijuana possession.

An ABC 8News analysis of court cases in Chesterfield County, Henrico County and the City of Richmond shows 3,662 pot possession cases alone passed through courts in 2012. In 2013, that number jumped nearly 12 percent, to 4,084.

Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

Do you think marijuana possession should be decriminalized in Virginia? Join the conversation on the ABC 8News - WRIC Facebook page!

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