A group of state lawmakers held a closed meeting yesterday in which they decided the Virginia State Crime Commission will study marijuana decriminalization. While a state-sponsored study does not guarantee the decriminalization of marijuana, it will serve as a strong foundation upon which state legislators can discuss a potential policy change.
After years of not even considering marijuana policy change, state legislators in recent months have begun pushing for reform. On Feb. 13, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement of laws against the substance is expensive and disproportionately convicts black Virginians. Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Jeff Fogel also spoke out against current marijuana laws, saying he would not prosecute small possession charges of marijuana if elected. The changing sentiment among legislators and aspiring public officials reflects a widespread change of attitude towards marijuana laws among Virginians.
According to a Virginia Commonwealth University poll, Virginians strongly support the legalisation of marijuana. Almost eight out of 10 respondents were in favor of reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor conviction to a $100 fine, while 62 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that recreational marijuana use should be legalized. Currently, any person convicted of possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana would face up to 30 days imprisonment for a first offense, and up to one year for subsequent convictions — a disproportionate punishment for minor possession.
Lawmakers should also consider the disparate treatment of minorities under current marijuana laws. Past studies have shown that marijuana use rates are roughly equal among black and white Americans. However, arrests for marijuana possession went up by 1,987 in Virginia from 2011 to 2013, with black Virginians accounting for 82 percent of this increase. Moreover, black Virginians accounted for almost 40 percent of the possession arrests in 2013, despite the fact they accounted for only about 20 percent of the state’s population.
Virginia’s current marijuana policies have a disparate effect on minorities, and the costs of convicting Virginians for marijuana outweigh the harm of minor possession. Given these negative effects and the increasing favorability toward decriminalized marijuana use among Virginians, a study by the Virginia State Crime Commission will serve as an important step towards changing the Commonwealth’s current marijuana laws.