Pinellas is among the top five counties with the highest arrest rates for drug possession in Florida, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
Between 2010 and 2015, for every 100,000 residents, 547 faced a misdemeanor or felony possession charge in Pinellas, according to the report. Police nationwide make more than 1.25 million arrests for drug possession every year, surpassing totals for any other crime, according to the 200-page report released last week.
In Pinellas, there were more than 31,000 drug possession charges from 2010 to 2015, the analysis shows, while Hillsborough, a larger county, had 21,000.
Lead author Tess Borden said the findings raise questions about the effectiveness of treating substance abuse as a crime rather than a public health issue.
"Our default in this country is to criminalize drugs. I grew up with a DARE officer coming to my classroom to say that you go to jail for doing drugs. That's true and that's what this report shows," she said. "You shouldn't have to be arrested, prosecuted and convicted in order to get help."
The numbers didn't surprise Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who pointed out that the study focuses on arrest rates during the height of the county's prescription drug epidemic, and later the rise of synthetic marijuana.
"Two, three years ago, we did not have our arms around it," he said. "We saw this proliferation of what people call pill mills. The doctor shopping was out of control."
The report notes that many arrests happen during traffic and pedestrian stops, but Gualtieri said it is often a secondary offense. For example, deputies may arrest someone for grand theft auto, and discover that the person possesses cocaine. The study, however, only included arrests where the most serious charge was drug possession.
"Law enforcement can never and will never solve the drug problem because it is an addiction problem, and as long as you have addiction and the demand, you're going to have the supply," Gualtieri said.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said officers also receive many "citizen-driven complaints" about suspected drug use.
The report, titled "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," focused on three other states: New York, Texas and Louisiana. Florida was included because of its role in the prescription drug crisis, its drug trafficking statutes, and its open public records laws, Borden said.
Researchers accounted for population by calculating arrest rates based on 100,000 people. Bradford County, near Gainesville, was No. 1 with 767 arrests per 100,000, while Miami-Dade was No. 2 at 618, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis. Monroe and Okeechobee ranked third and fourth, while Pinellas was fifth.
The study also explored the trail of drug possession charges through the court system. In Florida, more than nine of out 10 people pleaded guilty or no contest.
A trial was "meaningless" for many drug offenders, the study says. "For them, the idea of a trial was more of a threat than a right, often because it meant further pretrial incarceration until trial and/or a 'trial penalty' in the form of a substantially longer sentence if they exercised that right and lost."
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said the high rate of plea deals made sense: "Unless there's a suppression issue, like the search was improper, what defense is there?"
In recent years, the justice system has adopted more rehabilitative measures for people grappling with drug addiction, McCabe added, referring to the county's Drug Court and the new adult diversion program that will apply to people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger found the report's findings "perplexing" because drug caseloads are much larger for his attorneys in Pasco, where methamphetamine is prevalent.
"We have to recognize that this is a medical issue," he said. "You cannot arrest your way out of these types of issues."
Gualtieri said he wouldn't be shocked to see a similar report in 10 years.
"In order to break the cycle, something drastic needs to be done regarding prevention and treatment, and you've got a lot of good work that's being done by some organizations," he said. "But it's not enough, and it's not changing fast enough."
Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lauracmorel.