By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Recently Norfolk City Council heard one of its members suggest the city consider endorsing decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal and medical use.
Use and possession of marijuana, commonly called pot, still is a non-felony misdemeanor in Virginia. There are no locales which have opted to endorse a decriminalization measure.
Four states have “legalized” pot for adult cultivation, distribution or use by adults, and six states will vote in November whether or not to join them.
But before Norfolk or any Virginia locale could lessen the sanctions on pot, the State Legislature must change the city’s charter. “I think there is some strong support (on council) for decriminalizing marijuana,” said Paul Riddick, who supports decriminalization. “We would have to make it part of our legislative packet we submit to the legislature and be sponsored by one of our senators or delegates.”
Near the Virginia border, Washington, D.C. has joined the four states to legalize weed, another popular name for marijuana. In the nation’s capital, residents may use it, grow it for their personal use, but cannot sell it. In other states, such as Oregon, you can produce, distribute and use it, and pot is regulated and taxed as a state would booze. The potential for legalization of pot could mean millions in the coffers of cash-strapped states and local communities.
Simple possession of marijuana in Virginia is a misdemeanor (unclassified), with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, and a $500 fine for a first offense. For a second offense, the maximum penalty increases to 12 months in jail. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor. In Virginia if you are convicted on a drug charge you are at risk of having your license suspended if you are found guilty.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug under federal guidelines, which means it has a “high potential for abuse” and “no legitimate medical use.” But it has its own penalty structure under Virginia Law. One of the most compelling reasons emerging for decriminalizing marijuana, apart from the cost of jailing thousands of non-violent offenders, is colored by race. Almost a year ago, the Drug Policy Alliance released a report “Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests in Virginia (2003-2013)” showing that African-Americans bore the brunt of the arrests and sanctions for personal marijuana possession.
According to the report prepared by Dr. Jon Gettman of Shenandoah University, marijuana possession arrests in Virginia have increased dramatically over the last decade especially “among Black communities.” During the 2011-2013 time frame, pot possession arrests increased by 1,987 in Virginia from 19,697 arrests to 21,684 in 2013, and African Americans accounted for 82 percent, 1,627, of this increase.
“Increasing marijuana arrests has not resulted in a decrease in use,” said Gottman’s report. “In fact the rate of use and accessibility to weed by Virginians has increased, especially for people 18 to 25 years of age. “Police throughout Virginia have been enforcing laws in racially disparate ways that have readily increased the arrests of Black people much more so than the arrests of whites,” said the report.
From 2003 to 2013, arrests of Black people in Virginia on marijuana possession increased from 4,991 to 10,293 or a 106 percent increase. Blacks suffered 39 percent of the reported marijuana possession arrests in 2003 but make up only 20 percent of the state’s population. In 2017, Blacks still were 20 percent of the population and 47 percent of those who were arrested.
In 2003, the arrest rate for Black residents was 344 per 100,000 people compared to 144 for Whites as a ratio of 2.4 to 1. By 2012, the arrest rate for Blacks had risen to 636 while it was only 191 for Whites or a 3.3 to 1 ratio. The data for this report is from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) which used drug arrests data from 50 jurisdictions (including Norfolk) which made 90 percent of the state’s drug arrests during this time frame, by race. The top ten list (from first to 10) are Fairfax, Chesterfield and Prince William Counties, Virginia Beach, Chespeake, Richmond, Newport News Norfolk, Roanoke and Lynchburg. Hampton was 11th on that list.
Looking at those same cities in that order, with Fairfax County (67 percent), Chesterfield (53 percent), Prince William (58 percent) saw the highest percentage of Whites arrested.
But the other locales Including Chesapeake (64 percent), Richmond (56 percent), Newport News (74 percent), Norfolk 80 percent), Roanoke (65 percent), Lynchburg (58 percent), and Hampton (74 percent) saw a higher rate of African-Americans arrested.
Next month Dr. Gottman said that a revised edition of the disparity report will be released, and it will include data from 2014, the most recent year information on the trend is available. “Nothing has really changed in 2014 and until now,” said Gottman. “The rates are going up and may be getting worse.” Gottman said a variety of reasons are driving the high rate of arrests among Blacks for pot possession, including police departments devoting more resources.
Police, he said, are arresting the highly visible and easily replaceable streets peddlers of the drug. “People in the communities welcome the increase of police presence, but there is the unintended consequence of the high arrest rate for pot,” said Gottman, who has testified in courts across the country, explaining the racial disparity and why it is happening.
A lot of the arrests are not for selling but for simple possession of small amounts, Gotten explained.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, (MPP) which supports the legalization of the substance for adults, as it would alcohol, there are 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, which have decriminalized the medical use of the substance. Legalization would mean that individuals can produce, cultivate, distribute and use marijuana without fear of any sanctions, according to MPP Decriminalization, according to MPP, would mean that individuals could carry less than an ounce for personal and medical use without penalty.
But troubles start when a person may have over an ounce. If one is caught with a ounce or more, penalties may fall under the laws regarding distribution and they could be severe.
Advocates of decriminalizing said it would reduce the number of people being arrested for use or distribution of the substance. Fines, even a short incarceration if imposed, loss of driving privileges, and the damning notation for a conviction on a job application can be extra burdening for poor and minority residents.
Police have the discretion to either physically detain an individual who possesses a small amount of weed, or as in the case of a traffic violation, write a ticket to appear in court to plea their case. Further, especially in large urban centers like Norfolk, which already has a high level of incarcerations for various offenses, proponents say removing weed as an offense would help reduce the growing costs of housing this class of non-violent offender.
The Virginia General Assembly ended its 2016 legislative session by approving SB 701 – a cannabis oil bill – and the Governor did not veto the only marijuana-related bill to be passed..
This limited bill allows the cultivation of cannabis by pharmaceutical processors that would then produce cannabidiol oil. Patients suffering from intractable epilepsy could receive the oil with a written certification from their doctors. Epileptic patients won’t receive any benefit until at least 2017, as the bill requires a second passage next year.
Last year there were 28 different bills proposed in the both the House and Senate. The bills related to a variety of issues from impingement of pot-related offenses from criminal records, powers of park rangers to enforce anti-pot laws, driver’s licenses and medical use. State Senator Louise Lucas proposed a bill which would allow for use of pot for patients undergoing cancer treatments. To see the current laws and status of each state’s laws on marijuana, go to https://www.mpp.org/states/