Marion, Darlington counties in the top 10 nationwide for marijuana arrests

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTW) – Arrest rates for marijuana have trended down nationwide, but not in South Carolina. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union ranks South Carolina at number two in the country.

“Marijuana laws were sold to the public in the name of public safety, and instead they needlessly ensnare thousands of South Carolinians, disproportionately black people into its criminal justice system every year,” said Frank Knaack, Executive Director of ACLU of South Carolina.

The ACLU analyzed data that local law enforcement agencies submitted to the FBI in 2018.

Darlington County’s rate of marijuana possession arrests ranked number five in the entire country. The newly-elected sheriff declined to comment or interview.

Marion County ranked number seven out of more than 3,000 counties across the United States.

Marion County Sheriff Brian Wallace would not give an on camera interview, but provided this statement:

“The Marion County Sheriff’s Office is concerned about any violation of S.C. criminal law, particularly those violations involving illegal drugs. Currently, the possession of marijuana is illegal in S.C., and suspects found in violation will be charged accordingly. The decriminalization of marijuana at the state and/or federal level would not have a practical impact upon the MCSO, as very often other illegal drugs (such as cocaine, cocaine-base and methamphetamine) are found in proximity to marijuana. In traffic stops wherein a deputy detects the odor of marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle, a deputy would still have to determine whether or not probable cause exists to determine if the driver is impaired. The vast majority of cases which our agency investigates regarding illegal drugs rarely just involve marijuana. In addition to other illegal drugs, our investigations often find other items such as illegally possessed and/or obtained firearms, as well as stolen property. Presently, there are a number of pre-trial diversion programs that are available to first-time offenders who are charged with possession of marijuana, the successful completion of which, usually results in a dismissal and expungement of the charge. If the decriminalization of marijuana does occur at the state or federal level, the MCSO will continue to aggressively investigate cases involving other illegal drugs and criminal activity often associated therewith.”

Brian Wallace, Marion County Sheriff

“In the counties in which I practice and the counties in which I’ve prosecuted, there’s not been a shortage of marijuana,” said Brad Richardson, a former prosecutor and now defense attorney in Horry and Marion counties.

“It doesn’t take a lot to make a marijuana arrests. There could be people that are buying weed, selling marijuana trying to make ends meet. some that are trying to get high to feel a little better in an economically depressed area,” said Richardson.

Richardson also said the mindset towards marijuana is changing.

“At least the young people I’ve talked to in my office and out on the street. They just don’t see the dangers of marijuana,” said Richardson.

Richardson said if you have a marijuana charge seek counsel because the ramifications of convictions are real. Something Doug Elvington found out all too well at the age of 21.

“I was facing ten years,” said Elvington.

Elvington got pulled over and officers found a little more than an ounce of marijuana, baggies, and a scale. Elvington was facing felony charges and pleaded down to simple posession. Even after getting an associates degree in criminal justice he couldn’t get a job.

“They had to get tired of me submitting applications. It had to be 200 to 300 hundred. Over and over,” said Elvington.

After the financial burden of court and attorney fees, the charges were eventually expunged and Elvington got a job in the prison system. He now works for a private company.

“For people that have charges with marijuana understand that this is not the brick that is going to keep you from reaching your goal,” said Elvington.

While jail time is becoming less likely for simple possession, Frank Knaack said there are collateral harms.

“If you are a student on financial aid and you’re arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana, you lose your federal student financial aid, so you can lose access to college. Also in South Carolina, we still allow for the suspension of driver’s license for unpaid court debt,” said Knaack.

The report also shows staggering racial disparities. According to the ACLU, black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, but black people are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession. In Horry County the disparity is 6.8 times.

News 13 reached out to Horry County police Chief Joseph Hill, he declined an on camera interview but provided a statement.

“HCPD officers do their best with the information they have to enforce all laws equitably. The more information we receive from the community regarding potential criminal activity, the greater our ability to do so. Often, officers are called to a scene for other crimes or suspicious behaviors, and once on scene observe different crimes, to include possession of drugs or outstanding warrants. We continue to seek ways to improve performance across all law enforcement functions. These include increased community engagement and additional training opportunities for officers, including but not limited to diversity training.”

Joseph Hill, Horry County Police chief

“We need to move forward, as quickly as we can to end marijuana enforcement, and criminalization in South Carolina, because it has been a tool to oppress black community members, for 50 years now,” said Knaack.

Knaack said another reason to decriminalize is revenue.

“Additional revenue for schools, we’ll have additional revenue from mental health programs. All of these things will actually make our community safer,” said Knaack.

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