Area Police Say Alarming Pot Arrest Rates Are Misleading

OCEAN CITY — An ACLU report released earlier this month lists Worcester County at more than eight times the national average for marijuana possession arrest rates, based on information collected by the FBI and census data for 2010. There is some disagreement, however, over how much that statistic is warped by the seasonal nature of the county and the huge population shifts it goes through from winter to summer.

According to the report, Worcester County had 2,132 marijuana possession arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010. That’s 8.3 times the national average and five times higher than the state average. The next closest county to Worcester’s rate mentioned in the report is Kleberg, Texas, which had roughly 800 less arrests per 100,000 than Worcester.

Local law enforcement advises readers to take those statistics with a grain of salt since the ACLU report doesn’t account for the huge population boom that Ocean City, and by proxy the county, goes through every summer.

“The rate that you see for Worcester County, Md. is actually a gross over representation of the actual arrests because they calculate the county’s population against the number of arrests,” said Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ed Schreier, “but they don’t take into consideration the summer influx of up to 300,000 more people. So the rate is higher, not the number of arrests but the rate per capita. So we get over-represented in the arrest rate, which is a proportional thing.”

Local attorney John Phoebus agreed that the influx of hundreds of thousands or even millions of visitors every summer will distort the rate. He quoted a page from the ACLU report directly on his blog where the writers of that document acknowledge that Worcester does have reason to have a higher-than-average arrest rate, but Phoebus argued that Worcester’s place at the top of the chart is still highly unusual given the fact that other tourist destinations didn’t have similar rates.

“This statistic is also being compared to every tourist area in the entire country. Panama City Beach is a perfect example,” he said. “For a couple of weeks in spring, they’re going to have millions more residents of students that are there on spring break than they are year-round. But you don’t see Panama City Beach with the off the charts thing.”

In fact, several of the top 10 areas listed are metropolitan including Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Bronx, N.Y. It is fair to note that areas with much smaller populations like Cole, Mo. and Dare, N.C. also show up in the top 10.

“If you just look at that as a comparison between Ocean City and every other resort town that doesn’t have a large year-round population but does swell in the summer it’s still off the charts high,” he said.

The theory Phoebus offered is that Worcester’s spot at the top is a combination of the population flux as well as tighter laws and policing in the area.

“I think there are two things that go into that number: one part of it is the increase in population but the other part, I think, is aggressive policing on the part of the Ocean City Police Department [OCPD],” he said.

Phoebus was quick to clarify that he wasn’t accusing the department of anything illegal but only arguing that the approach in Worcester can be more forceful than some other areas.

“Many vacationers and students working in Ocean City for the summer come from states that have much laxer marijuana laws and are often surprised at the level of enforcement they encounter,” he wrote.

The OCPD doesn’t make it a secret that they’re paying extra attention during the summer months when the city becomes crowded. Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal explained that June in particular tends to see a high volume of undercover officers out of the streets.

“We always have a big effort going towards drug enforcement but typically in June the problem seems to get worse so our narcotics officers really crackdown then,” she said. “Our narcotics officers, they do undercover drug enforcement operations and they really focus on combating the problem because we know it’s a problem, everyone does, so they really step-up their drug enforcement for the summer months.”

This month, the OCPD, in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office, made 12 arrests and confiscated $1,600 in cash along with drugs and paraphernalia through use of undercover narcotics agents. Likewise, the Sheriff’s Office, also sharing credit with OCPD, announced that the culmination of a six-month investigation has recently resulted in another five arrests with over $30,000 seized as well as 7.5 pounds of marijuana confiscated.

A simple Internet search for pot possession arrests for a typical summer weekend in Ocean City yielded more than 50 results. From Friday June 7 through Sunday June 9, 26 arrests were made for marijuana possession and an additional 32 citations were issued for the same offense.

The new ability for officers to either make an arrest or issue a citation for eligible offenders holding marijuana is something that Phoebus claimed can be a double-edged sword. While it allows greater convenience for both officers and violators by not forcing an arrest for marijuana possession under a certain amount, Phoebus explained that some people might not treat a written citation with the same gravity as actually being placed in handcuffs and therefore might ignore the infraction, which does require a mandatory court appearance, just like an arrest would.

Luckily, Phoebus said that law enforcement in the area seems to be making a special effort to make people understand that a citation for possession is still a serious thing.

Schreier and O’Neal maintained that while there is a crackdown on drugs during the summer it is always done by the book and strictly for the safety of the community. Schreier underlined the healthy working relationship between agencies in the area and promised that drug dealers will not be safe by crossing county or municipal lines.

“[Ocean City] is part of our county. We go in there and we’ve assisted Ocean City in their investigations and some of our investigations have carried over into Ocean City,” he said.

That kind of vigilance will lead to a high arrest rate, admitted Schreier, but not because of aggressive policing. Worcester’s extreme arrest rate, he insisted, is only an anomaly because of the population influx.

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