Council denies marijuana bill
Charlottesville City Council vetoed an ordinance Tuesday which would reclassify the possession of marijuana within the city as a Class IV misdemeanor for first-time offenders, eliminating the possibility of a jail sentence and capping fines at $250. Current state law punishes possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana with as much as 30 days in jail and up to $500 in fines.
Ed McCann, executive director of Virginia’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, advocated lessening penalties for marijuana possession to Council, though he said Charlottesville is notably more lenient than many other areas in the state on marijuana penalty enforcement.
“We understand that Charlottesville does not generally jail its citizens for marijuana, but we are one police chief away from [beginning] to do that,” he said.
Charlottesville resident Jordan McNeish said the current law unfairly targets individuals, recounting his own six months in jail for possession of 2.6 ounces of marijuana.
“My understanding of marijuana prohibition has, over the last year, evolved from baffled puzzlement to a realization that it is used to tacitly target minorities,” McNeish said. “I believe that my incarceration was a sort of collateral damage in a war waged on people of a disposable racial and socio-economic status.”
Critics of the ordinance contended that some unintended consequences of the ordinance could place those arrested for cannabis possession at a greater disadvantage than the current law does.
The proposed ordinance is unclear as to whether prosecuted individuals would be able to apply for restricted driver’s licenses after a conviction, an opportunity extended under the existing ordinance when a convicted offender’s license is automatically suspended for six months.
Another provision of the proposed ordinance would allow those arrested for simple possession to choose whether they wish to be prosecuted under the local or state law. If they chose to be prosecuted with the proposed Class IV misdemeanor, they could not be appointed a representative by the court, which Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos said would create a justice system which offered the rich greater protection than the poor.
“The reason I opposed that policy is that I believe it would do more harm than good,” Szakos said. “We would create a two-tiered system where you have people who are being punished unjustly by being stuck with things like no driver’s licenses.”
Though the proposed ordinance failed to pass Council, members agreed to seriously consider the possibility of treating marijuana offences as violations, which are legally akin to traffic offenses.