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Legal Review: Virginia’s Attorney General Wants to Decriminalize Marijuana

By Criminal Defense Attorney Floyd Oliver of Price Benowitz LLP

In June, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Press.

It called for the state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession and to stop sending innocent people to jail. The letter received bipartisan support, which means Virginia could see decriminalization very soon.

“It is about time,” said Floyd Oliver of Price Benowitz. “Every time legalization occurs in another state, it makes Virginia’s laws look more and more outdated. The Attorney General was absolutely correct. It is time to stop disproportionally targeting African Americans, which is what the current law does, and stop sending anyone to jail that does not deserve to be there.”

The plea from the Attorney General comes at a time when marijuana possession convictions are increasing in Virginia. In 2003, approximately 13,000 Virginians were arrested on marijuana possession charges. In 2017, almost 28,000 people faced charges, an increase of 115 percent.

Those charged face harsh penalties, too. Even a first offense misdemeanor charge could land a person in jail for up to 30 days, and they could be required to pay a fine of $500. A second offense, even for a small amount of marijuana, has consequences of up to a full year in jail and fines up to $2,500.

Those convictions are costing Virginians approximately $81 million a year in additional taxes. However, the social cost is much greater than that. Like in many other states across the country, possession laws seem to target individuals of color.

From 2007 to 2016, the Virginia Crime Commission reports, African Americans saw the most arrests. In fact, they made up 46 percent of all possession arrests.

This is not the first time the idea of decriminalization has been raised in Virginia. Last year, Virginia’s Senate Majority Leader, Thomas K. Norment, Jr. sponsored a proposed bill that would decriminalize the drug, but that effort failed. Now, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pushing for decriminalization, it may just be the time to end the unfair criminal charges.

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. If a new law decriminalizing the drug was passed, those found in possession of marijuana would still face penalties. However, those consequences would be much less severe and would likely be the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

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