How is marijuana still an issue in 2018? Oh wait, because Virginia. Unlike, San Francisco and other localities all through the US who are decriminalizing marijuana, Virginia just killed a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in committee. Earlier this week, nine Republicans who sit on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted against the measure in a vote that was cast along partisan lines. The bill, sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30th District), would have revised the punishment for possession from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil penalty.
Let’s not steal San Francisco’s thunder, however. Their recent announcement is not just a pioneering moment in the fight to end the prohibition of marijuana, but is a landmark announcement for criminal justice reform. According to the Los Angeles Times, “San Francisco will retroactively apply California’s new marijuana legalization laws to prior convictions, expunging or reducing misdemeanors and felonies dating to 1975.” Under this policy close to 5,000 convictions will be reviewed with a view towards more lenient resentencing, with an additional 3,000 misdemeanors prior to legalization being “dismissed and sealed.” San Francisco’s District Attorney, George Gascon, has been quoted as saying that federal drug policy is draconian and “going backwards,” while the Golden City is “once again taking the lead to undo the damage that this country’s disastrous, failed drug war has had on our nation and on communities of color in particular.”
California voted to legalize marijuana in November 2016, after the Proposition 64 referendum which passed with 57 percent of the vote – legalization went into effect as of January this year.
So where does this leave Virginia? Governor Northam, then Candidate Northam, was quite vocal on the campaign trail about the discrepancy of marijuana sentencing in the Commonwealth. In an interview with Transmission, Northam said, “There are far too many people who end up in our courts, jails, and penitentiaries.” He went on to say, “There is also an inequality out there, African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be put in jail for marijuana.”
Previously, Republicans have also taken a positive stance on decriminalization. This past November, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment said, “I think it’s absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana.” Norment, finished by saying, “We are tough on crime. It’s a question of what crimes we want to be tough on.”
Norment reversed his position this past week, citing that the bill would likely never make it out of committee.
Nonetheless, Virginia’s State Crime Commission released a report last October finding that current marijuana laws disproportionately target black communities – and that research into decriminalization in the Commonwealth is outdated – focusing mainly on medicinal research such as that done by the Joint Commission on Health Care. Which is another part of the long-standing issue surrounding decriminalization legislation. Yet according to Jenn Michelle Pedini, the Executive Director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Virginia, eight out of ten Virginians support “fines not crimes” for possession of marijuana by adults. “It’s time for our state legislature and Commonwealth’s Attorneys to reflect the will of those they were elected to represent, and not simply their own profit structures,” stated Pedini when asked by RVA Mag what the difference between Virginia and California really was when assessing decriminalization.
Virginia will continue to exist in a purgatorial no man’s land with regards to decriminalization. As a result, the trend of arresting and incarcerating first-time marijuana users will likely continue for the time being. Indeed, the State Crime Commission found that 133,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges in the last decade alone, making Virginia one of the leading states for marijuana arrests.
“The good news is we have the Crime Commission Study to serve as the rational basis of support for decriminalization legislation,” said Pedini. Still, Virginia is a long way from enacting anything that resembles what San Francisco or California is doing, something Pedini was keen to point out. “District Attorneys in California are moving to expunge and reduce marijuana charges as far back as 1975, now that California has chosen to regulate sales to adults, while here in Virginia, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are fighting tooth and nail against any measure of penalty reduction for possession.”