It was big news here in Virginia when Senator Norment, the leading Republican in the senate, requested that the Commonwealth’s Crime Commission study the issue of marijuana decriminalization.
The Commission has issued its report — which you can read in full here. Some highlights:
- This study does not address medical marijuana, which is being studied by the Joint Commission on Health Care.
- Public sentiment expressed to the Commission related to the study was overwhelmingly in favor of decrim. Staff received over 5,665 written comments, of which 3,743 supported decrim, and 107 did not support.
- It has been 38 years since the Commonwealth set its criminal penalty structure for possession of marijuana. Under current law, a first conviction means up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine, and driver’s license being revoked for 6 months.
- First time marijuana offenders represented by court- appointed counsel can expect to pay roughly $400 to $800 in costs and fees, with other “optional fees” increasing these costs.
- Very few people serve jail time in Virginia solely for possession of marijuana; the cost to jail an inmate was $79.28 per day in FY15.
- People are going to jail for marijuana offenses, though: in FY16, 31% of subsequent marijuana possession convictions resulted in active jail terms, with a median effective jail sentence of 15 days.
- Males, young adults, and Blacks [their words] are over-represented in the total number of arrests for possession as compared to their overall general population in Virginia.
- Virginia law does not include a specific quantity limit in relation to marijuana possession; no distinction is made for what might be personal use.
- This is a big one: Current research does not support a reliable connection between THC blood levels and impairment while operating a motor vehicle.
- The report dives into a variety of policy considerations. One interesting finding: “The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts noted that it was ‘not confident…. that a human nose can discern reliably the presence of a criminal amount of marijuana…'”
- “The trial court’s ruling that the smell of unburnt marijuana did not justify the search of the defendant’s back seat was upheld.”
- THC blood levels could be added to Virginia DUI statutes…. but, according to the report, those levels are not supported by science and would create the risk of non-impaired drivers being convicted.
- The report addresses the huge racial disparity in arrests, suggesting a few theories: racial inequality, area of residence, and conscious / subconscious racial bias.
- A section of the report takes a look at collateral consequences beyond jail time and fines. These included issues with employment, higher education financial aid, housing, concealed handgun purchasing, and more.
To be clear: decriminalization is not the same as legalization. The punishment would be amended from a criminal to a civil offense.
What happens next? Senator Norment is pushing a bill that would decriminalize marijuana for first-time offenders.
“The change would save thousands of people from the threat of criminal records and jail time,” reported the Pilot’s Eric Hartley. “More than 112,000 people were arrested on first-offense marijuana charges from 2007 to 2016, a statewide review found.”
The 2018 legislative session convenes January 10, 2018. Have you let your elected official know how you feel about this issue? To find them, click here.
Your letter or call to your elected officials does not need to be fancy. Speak your heart. Research backing up your opinions is ideal (use info from this article!), but on a macro level, your elected officials’ staffs are trying to get a sense of the general sentiment in their district.
What is most important is that you express how you would like them to vote.
Remember, they work for you.
To be a part of organized lobbying efforts, join the Virginia 2018 Cannabis Conference & Lobby Day.
To keep track of all bills moving through the system in Virginia, click here.