At the same time Stonewall Jackson was being removed from its pedestal, a planned Burn One RVA event sparked up on Brown’s Island to celebrate the decriminalization of marijuana. Here’s how it went, and what the new laws mean for Virginians.
At 4:20pm, ironically just as Burn One RVA’s unofficial cannabis decriminalization celebration was set to begin, it started to pour.
At the same moment that groups were coming together for the impromptu removal of the Stonewall Jackson Monument in The Fan, Burn One RVA was sparking up simultaneously at Brown’s Island. Small groups of bathing suit-clad young people staggered up the hill, wrapping soaked sweatshirts around their shoulders and shielding their faces from the rain. All that remained was a single, determined turtle, bravely scaling the distance from the island’s north to south side.
A handful of people decided to stay, sheltered beneath a small shed, content to pass a joint and watch as the James River swallowed up the runoff from the city above. Just three miles away, Stonewall Jackson was being lifted off its platform, but here, all you could hear was rain and happy stoner music from a portable speaker.
One person in the crew was a woman from Oregon Hill, a long-time marijuana smoker and Richmond resident. “It’s time… So many people across so many social backgrounds would benefit from legalization,” she said. “Even the CBD problem. I can give that to my dogs without fear that they’ll have any problems. I’m going to rely on that this weekend, because they hate fireworks.”
Burn One RVA’s press release states, as a sort of mission statement, “Folks have been fighting for decriminalization/legalization in the Commonwealth for years. Now, we finally have a victory, and there is nothing planned to celebrate. COVID-19 and the protests probably have something to do with the fact that nobody is talking about this or planning anything. So we’re starting the conversation. We didn’t get any permits, but we aren’t actually planning anything. This ‘event’ is just an idea with a suggested place and time. We just hope some like-minded people come down to help us celebrate this momentous moment of freedom.”
Don’t bother looking them up, you won’t find anything.
“We aren’t associated with any organizations. We aren’t involved with politics, the government, or any legalization organizations,” they continue. “We’re 100 percent independent. Maybe we’re just some folks who like to roll one up, kick back, and take it easy. Maybe we just want a reason to smile in a year that has turned out to be a complete and total turd sandwich… so far. Seriously, 2020 has been the worst. Let’s turn some frowns upside down. It’s that simple.”
Virginia lawmakers have been debating the decriminalization of cannabis since 2017. There’s still more to be done, but what we have is worth the celebration Burn One RVA had planned. According to the bill, SB 2 / HB 972, that Gov. Northam signed in May, it is no longer a criminal offense (just a civil one) to carry up to an ounce of cannabis. Unless it’s for medical purposes, possession will result in a $25 ticket, the lowest fine of any decriminalization law in the country.
Virginia has been working on a plethora of marijuana-based laws since 2017. You can find them listed on the Virginia NORML website. The organization collects stories of people who have been arrested for possessing marijuana. To find more info on local residents’ arrest experiences, check out the Cruel Consequences project.
Selling and growing the plant remains illegal, and those caught could be sentenced to anywhere from one to 40 years in prison, depending on the situation. But even casual consumers might want to proceed with caution, especially for immigrants and those concerned with employer background checks.
VA Senator Scott Surovell told WTOP News that an arrest will “still show up on an employment background check, because the records are going to be public at the courthouse, and you can be deported for this if you’re not legally present.”
For those whose professional futures could suffer from minor charges like this, full legalization is key. The most vulnerable populations in the country are people of color. In Richmond, 81 percent of residents charged with marijuana possession are Black, despite Black Richmonders making up only 49 percent of the city’s population. This doesn’t reflect the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at about the same rate.
Even as states are beginning to legalize marijuana, arrest rates are climbing across the country, more so than arrests involving any other drug — marijuana possession makes up 41 percent of all drug arrests. Marijuana-related incarceration accounts for 8.6 percent of all drug arrests in the country, and the vast majority of long-term sentences are for trafficking, not possession. Perhaps this is a remnant of Reagan-era politics, in line with the belief that increasing arrests is a sign of productivity, regardless of the offense.
Fortunately, with decriminalization in place, “We may see up to 15,000 fewer arrests per year for marijuana possession in Virginia,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, Executive Director of VA NORML, in an interview with WTOP. That number is out of the 26,470 total people arrested for marijuana possession last year.
But why, one might ask, is it worth arresting people for marijuana possession in the first place? It seems to be widely understood that marijuana is one of the more harmless drugs, and often speculated that alcohol, a legal substance, is comparably the same (or even worse). If that’s the case, our country’s documents have some catching up to do.
Believe it or not, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance in the Controlled Substance Act, a statute written in by Nixon’s colleagues to categorize and identify harmful drugs. Schedule I is the most dangerous level, with “high potential for abuse.”
As it was being drafted, Raymond P. Shafer, chairman of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug abuse, urged the committee to reconsider the drug’s status. He showed them his very 70s-looking report, Marihuana: A Signal Of Misunderstanding (yes, he did spell it that way), which said that marijuana users are more timid and drowsy than dangerous. Alas, no changes were made.
Until reports like Shafer’s are studied more closely by the government, it’s up to the individual states — or individual citizens — to make changes of their own. Throwing a city-wide weed party is certainly one way to feel unified on the issue.
Right now, Virginia lawmakers are studying the possible legalization of recreational sales and will revisit everything else, including full legalization, in 2021. It’s hard to picture Richmond without the scent of weed wafting through stairwells.