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WEIRTON, W.Va. — Taped to the wall of pride inside the Hancock County drug task force’s bare-bones office, a snapshot of eight marijuana plants draped over coat hangers serves as evidence of one more small triumph in the war on weed.
That same image of a drug-filled closet is seared in Ryan Neeley’s memory, but with a very different meaning. To Neeley, the photo is proof that in the same country where a town in Colorado features a marijuana vending machine, the same country with a president who said it is wrong for “only a select few” to be punished for smoking pot, possession of the drug can still be a life-altering experience, and not in a good way.
The weed in the photograph was drying on hangers in the house where Neeley and his friends live, and when members of the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton drug task force showed up there in January and served a warrant, they arrested one resident and seized two pounds of marijuana and the materials used to grow and pack it.
Here in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, marijuana possession arrests soared by more than 2,000 percent in the first decade of this century. It was the biggest arrest-rate jump of any locality in the nation, although in a county of just 30,000, that amounts to only a few dozen cases. Raids like the one at Neeley’s house are a vital weapon, says Mark Simala, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who runs the task force from an unmarked office building in this struggling mill town — a place he calls “ground zero for the drug war” because traffickers use the area as a path from Pittsburgh, about 35 miles away, to cities in the Midwest.