Now that Democrats have won control of the General Assembly, decriminalization of marijuana could pass in the legislative session that begins in January. This would mean reducing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil violation like a traffic ticket.
Such a change in the law would have a sweeping effect throughout Virginia: Last year, more than 46,000 marijuana possession cases were prosecuted in the state — and almost 20,000 people, most of them African Americans, were found guilty, leaving them with a criminal record. Although the crime is only a misdemeanor, a conviction still can hurt job prospects and other opportunities.
“If I get this on my record, I have to tell people what happened,” said CJ, a Richmond resident who asked to remain anonymous because he once had been caught smoking marijuana. “Most places aren’t too fond of that, and I might miss out on some opportunities because of a little bit of weed.”
CJ had a run-in with the law over a small amount of marijuana while he was in high school. He had been smoking a joint on the roof of a building in Alexandria with two friends and his cousin. After they climbed down, two police officers confronted the group.
“My biggest fear was going to jail and having to explain what happened to my mom,” CJ said.
After some back and forth, the officers let the young men off with a warning: If they were caught again on the streets, they would be charged.
“For what?” asked CJ.
“Doesn’t matter,” one of the officers replied before demanding that CJ and his companions get out of his sight.
They got off lucky, but that hasn’t been the case for most people caught with marijuana in Virginia.
20,000 convictions for marijuana possession last year
Capital News Service examined a database of more than 2 million cases processed in General District Courts across Virginia in 2018. Marijuana possession cases numbered more than 46,000. The only offenses more common than marijuana possession were traffic-related, such as speeding, reckless driving and driving without a license.
Of the marijuana cases, more than 31,000 had been filed in 2018; the others had been filed in previous years.
About 35,000 of the cases before the General District Courts last year ended with a final disposition. In approximately 20,000 cases, the defendant was found guilty; in about 14,900 cases, the defendant was found not guilty or prosecutors dropped the charges.
Besides underscoring the prevalence of marijuana prosecutions, the data also sheds light on another factor often cited by critics of marijuana laws: the disproportionate impact on African Americans.
African Americans make up 19% of Virginia’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But they represented 49% of all marijuana possession prosecutions — and 51% of all defendants found guilty. More than 1,400 of every 100,000 black Virginians faced marijuana charges in General District Court last year.
In contrast, non-Hispanics whites make up 61% of Virginia’s population. But they represented 48% of all marijuana possession prosecutions — and 45% of all defendants found guilty. About 425 of every 100,000 white Virginians faced marijuana charges in General District Court last year.
Surveys have shown that similar proportions of whites and blacks use marijuana. The racial disparity is one reason why Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring convened a “Cannabis Summit” on Wednesday to discuss decriminalizing possession of marijuana and legalizing it for recreational use.
“The burden of this system is falling disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” Herring said. “There is a better and smarter approach to cannabis, and I think the time has come that we can embrace that.”
In recent months, Herring has stepped up his arguments calling for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, action to address past convictions for simple possession, and legalization and regulation of adult use of marijuana in Virginia.
The attorney general noted that in 2018, marijuana arrests in Virginia totaled almost 29,000 — their highest level in at least 20 years. That was triple the number of marijuana arrests in 1999. More than half of those arrested last year were under age 24.
Virginia spends more than $81 million annually enforcing marijuana laws, Herring said.
“Virginia’s policy of criminalizing minor marijuana possession is not working,” Herring said in an op-ed.
“It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions. The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers. And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color.”
Under current Virginia law, any person knowingly or intentionally possessing marijuana — unless the substance was obtained with a doctor’s recommendation — is guilty of a misdemeanor and can be fined up to $500 and confined in jail for up to 30 days.
In addition to the fines and jail time, people found guilty of possession of marijuana may face challenges such as finding employment, being approved for rental applications and being accepted to college even years after a conviction.
Democrats and many Republicans believe the law should be reformed. In preparation for the 2020 legislative session, two lawmakers, both Democrats, have filed bills regarding the issue:
• Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria is sponsoring legislation to decriminalize simple marijuana possession and provide a process for expunging convictions. Under his bill, people caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would face a civil penalty of no more than $50.
• Del. Lee Carter of Prince William County has proposed legalizing marijuana, allowing people 21 and older in Virginia to buy the substance in state-regulated stores. His bill would decriminalize marijuana possession for those under 21.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, supports marijuana decriminalization and access to medical marijuana, but he hasn’t called for legalization.
Even some law enforcement officers believe the marijuana laws should be reformed. Capt. Emmett Williams of the Richmond Police Department called the current penalties “a little harsh.”
“I think the legislature is trying to make it so they can get those charges dropped easier. Virginia itself is harsher than most states when it comes to that. I don’t think something like a simple possession charge should affect someone for so long,” Williams said.
However, many people oppose legalizing marijuana because they fear it will encourage more Virginians, especially young adults, to use the drug.
In addition, “it’s a substance that is associated with a lot of violence,” Williams said. Gangs are often involved in the trafficking of marijuana and other drugs, selling the substances on the street and fighting over territory and money.
Williams also said officials should not get their hopes up that marijuana legalization would boost Virginia’s economy and provide a tax windfall for the state.
“Even if marijuana became legalized in Virginia, the distributors wouldn’t be able to get tax breaks for owning a business because they can’t use banking institutions since it’s still illegal on a federal level,” Williams said.