House Republicans Favor Criminal Penalties for Simple Marijuana Possession



There were a historic 21 marijuana-related bills presented in the Virginia General Assembly this year. Unfortunately, most were dead on arrival in the Virginia House of Delegates. Each of the 6 expungement bills, both decriminalization bills, and the drivers license decrim bill, heard by the House Courts of Justice Criminal Law subcommittee were killed along party lines, with Republicans voting to table each of the 9 pieces of legislation. Vivienne Smith, the Director of the Virginia chapter of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition stated that she was disappointed the republicans on the committee so swiftly tabled bills supported by the majority of Virginians. “It’s unfortunate that the republicans in the House aren’t being more pragmatic. Marijuana is now a mainstream topic of debate and will only become more so as we approach the 2016 elections. Holding steadfast to the notion that marijuana users are criminals will only hurt our party.”

Pam Novy, the Executive Director of Virginia NORML, states that she remains optimistic, in spite of the recent setback. “While the likelihood of advancing similar legislation now in the Senate has certainly decreased, it’s clear that many republican lawmakers see the need for change. Many are now willing to admit, at least privately, that criminalizing a substance that’s been used by nearly half of Virginians is simply wrong.”

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When asked if the recent setback would negatively impact the marijuana reform movement in Virginia, Novy gave an emphatic no. "The actions of the House subcommittee will only fuel voter dissatisfaction, particularly among millennials. We will continue our work educating lawmakers who wish to learn more about cannabis science and widely accepted medical applications, the successful decriminalization legislation in 21 states, and successful medical legislation in 24 states. We also aim to aggressively educate voters on both the science and the politics throughout the 2016 election season.”

Jenn Michelle Pedini, a cancer survivor and the Executive Director of Cannabis Commonwealth, Virginia’s leading organization advocating to expand medical marijuana access, says current laws in Virginia are simply unjust for patients. “In 1979 the Virginia General Assembly passed our nation’s very first medical marijuana law, not by referendum but by the Legislature. Thirty-seven years later, Virginians are still waiting for access to this life-saving, non-toxic plant. Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults is the first common sense step in expanding access and ending the prosecution of patients.”

The ACLU of Virginia supports legislation that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana. “Marijuana prohibition imposes arbitrary, often harsh penalties for private conduct for which no criminal penalty is appropriate and imposes all of the hardships of an arrest, arrest record and often a prison term on otherwise law-abiding people. The personal cost to those arrested and their families is often significant and can linger for years. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, it can affect their public housing and student financial aid eligibility, employment opportunities and child custody determinations. Marijuana prohibition has needlessly ensnared tens of thousands of Virginians in the criminal justice system, at tremendous human and financial cost.”

The number of Virginians arrested for violating the state's marijuana possession laws increased 76 percent between the years 2003 and 2014, at a time when possession arrests were falling nationwide. The impact has hit the African-American community the hardest. The number of African-Americans arrested for possessing marijuana climbed from 4,991 in 2003 to 10,293 in 2014, an increase of 106 percent, despite consumption rates being similar between blacks and whites. In 2013, African-Americans accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of possession arrests, but comprised only 20 percent of the state population.

Presently, Virginia police make over 22,000 annual marijuana possession arrests, one of the highest totals of any state in the nation. “Most of these arrests are a result of marijuana possession arrests and is another area where blacks are arrested and sentenced at a rate 3 times higher than whites,” says Shirley Ginwright, President of the Fairfax County NAACP.

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