Marijuana Possession: Arrest Statistics at Issue


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Oct 22, 2005
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Carson City -- Despite official records that show nearly 5,000 people were arrested in Nevada on marijuana possession charges last year, Las Vegas and Reno police say their departments give tickets to pot smokers and rarely book offenders in jail if their only offense is using the illegal drug.
Las Vegas police Detective Todd Raybuck said this week that FBI crime reporting rules require police departments to list the citations they hand out for marijuana possession as arrests when they compile statistics.

Under Nevada law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana has been a misdemeanor offense punishable by a $600 fine since October 2001. Records of offenders are cleared if they complete an anti-drug course.

Before passage of that law, Nevada had been the only state that made possession of any amount of marijuana a felony crime.

"We are told that citations should be considered arrests," Raybuck said. "I don't know any police officer who goes around arresting people for smoking pot on the corner. We are too busy for that."

"We give them a ticket," Reno police Sgt. Dave Evans said. "We don't want to be clogging up our jail with them. Some of the marijuana proponents say we are, but it is not happening."

Their statements ran counter to the contention of the Committee to Regulate & Control Marijuana, which maintains police in Nevada waste $42 million a year pursuing minor marijuana offenders when they should be spending time and resources on more serious crimes.

"If they are arresting this number of people, then it is impossible to say they aren't wasting police resources," said Neal Levine, the committee's campaign manager.

Levine said it still would take a lot of time and resources even if police only issued citations to the 5,000 people charged with marijuana offenses last year.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws reported Monday that the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2005 showed a record 786,545 people nationwide were arrested for marijuana offenses. Of the total, 696,074 were charged with marijuana possession. Nevada figures are included in the FBI report.

"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism."

Levine's organization is pushing for Nevadans to approve Question 7 on the Nov. 7 ballot. With passage, adults could possess and use up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Penalties for driving under the use of marijuana and furnishing the drug to minors would be increased.

The organization maintains current laws are not working since it is clear many people continue to risk arrest and use the illegal drug.

The federal Office of Drug Control Policy reported earlier this month that 14.6 million Americans used marijuana last year and that use of the drug by people in their 50s and 60s has increased dramatically in the past three years.

Nevada's marijuana group wants the state Legislature to set up a system where marijuana would be grown on regulated farms, taxed and sold in licensed stores.

By providing marijuana through a state-regulated system, the Committee to Regulate & Control Marijuana theorizes people no longer would have to buy the drug from the criminal element. With fewer drug dealers around, the organization argues youths would have less access to the drug.

"What they are doing is creating a criminal market where really bad guys make a lot of money," Levine said.

Levine would not comment on whether his group intends to conduct an extensive television campaign to sell Question 7 to voters.

Four years ago, supporters of a move to legalize up to 3 ounces of marijuana spent nearly $2 million on TV advertisements. Their proposal received only 39 percent of the vote. Records filed with the state on Aug. 8 showed the organization had received $436,000 in contributions and spent $338,000.

A poll conducted for the Review-Journal in April showed the question losing, with 34 percent in favor of the measure and 56 percent against. The rest were undecided. Earlier this week a Reno Gazette-Journal poll found the question losing, 37 percent for to 55 percent against.

The marijuana group has posted on its Web site a portion of a July 10 Las Vegas television appearance by Clark County Sheriff Bill Young during which he questions whether 4,962 Nevadans were arrested on marijuana possession.

"Nobody is going to prison. I disagree with those numbers," said Young, who admitted he tried marijuana a couple of times as a young man.

But an examination of monthly reports submitted by police, including those from Young's department, to the state Department of Public Safety, shows 4,962 Nevadans were "arrested" for marijuana possession in 2005, a 12 percent increase from the 4,423 possession arrests in 2004.

In 2000, the last year before Nevada's misdemeanor law went into effect, 4,761 people in the state were arrested for marijuana possession.

Levine said he has been waiting for Young to retract his comments about the marijuana arrest statistics.

"We are still waiting," he said. "They say no one is sitting in jail and we have filed a bunch of requests for information, but they won't tell us."

Raybuck said Las Vegas police made 2,785 marijuana possession arrests last year, including 1,700 cases where offenders were given citations.

In virtually all other cases, Raybuck said suspects were booked in jail for charges such as domestic violence or robbery, and also charged with marijuana possession as a secondary offense. They did not go to jail for marijuana possession, but for the more serious offense, he said.

He said that in 14 years as a police officer, he has arrested one person solely on marijuana possession charges. In that case, he said the offender continued to smoke pot in his presence while he was arresting another person.

Evans said the best way for a minor marijuana smoker to avoid jail is simply cooperate with police when he or she is caught with the drug. Cooperation virtually is a guarantee they will be given a ticket and not go to jail, he said.

Note: Police say offenders rarely jailed, which runs counter to argument by backers of initiative.

Marijuana Arrests For Year 2005:

Newshawk: Global_Warming
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)
Author: Ed Vogel, Review-Journal Capital Bureau
Published: September 23, 2006
Copyright: 2006 Las Vegas Review-Journal

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