In spirit of the new year, Norfolk’s office of the Commonwealth Attorney took the “new year, new me” goal to unprecedented heights. In line with Virginia’s continuing push for cannabis decriminalization, Norfolk’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Greg Underwood, said in a letter addressed last Thursday that he will largely stop prosecuting people for possession of marijuana.
The letter’s intent is to establish a new directive for the year; it was forwarded to judges, city and state leaders, and criminal justice/public safety colleagues, according to a press release by Virginia NORML.
“The Office already does not prosecute these cases; however, some come to the office as misdemeanor appeals or when attached to felony charges or misdemeanor charges the Office handles,” Underwood wrote in the letter. “The Office will cease prosecuting all misdemeanor marijuana possession cases and will move to nolle prosequi or dismiss such cases that fall within our purview.”
According to Virginia NORML, marijuana arrests in Virginia increased 20% between 2016 and 2017. They expect that over $100M will be spent on enforcing marijuana prohibition across the Commonwealth, “with nearly 28,000 Virginians arrested for marijuana-related crimes.” According to the same release, Mr. Underwood has already established his stance on cannabis; last fall, at a Virginia NORML-sponsored panel discussion, he stated, “I support legalizing marijuana.”
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, was impressed by Underwood’s initiative. “The fruits of Mr. Underwood’s leadership on marijuana possession prosecution can be seen in Commonwealth’s Attorney races throughout Virginia,” she said. “On the 2018 campaign trail, Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Miles embraced a more progressive approach to enforcement than his predecessor or challenger. This year, three Northern Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates are echoing Mr. Underwood’s policy, pledging not to waste taxpayer resources prosecuting simple misdemeanor marijuana possession.”
The General Assembly approved the use of cannabidiol oils in 2018, but Virginia is still currently one of 20 states that bans both recreational and medicinal marijuana use. But it seems attitudes are changing. “It’s time for the Virginia General Assembly to take legislative action to decriminalize marijuana,” Pedini said. “Seven out of ten Virginians favor fines, not crimes, for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. In the absence of such action, we can expect to see municipalities and Commonwealth’s Attorneys leverage the powers they do have when it comes to enforcing marijuana prohibition.”
The City of Norfolk officially endorsed marijuana decriminalization in 2018 and has already added it to the docket for the General Assembly in their 2019 legislative agenda. SB 997 sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30), would decriminalize small-time possession of cannabis by adults and instead issue tickets; $50 for first violation, $100 for a second violation, and $250 for a third or subsequent violation.
The Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference & Lobby Day starts in Richmond this Saturday, January 12th, and continues on to the 14th. The conference will feature expert speakers on the Virginia’s emerging hemp industry, medical cannabis, and marijuana law reform. For more information or to register, click here. For more information on Cannabis reform in Virginia or to keep up with the conversation, visit the Virginia NORML site.