An Arlington resident recently wrote to the Virginia State Crime Commission during the ongoing Request for Written Content period in support of marijuana decriminalization. This issue was considered in the state legislature earlier this year, resulting in a study by the Virginia State Crime Commission.
The resident shared his letter, below, with ARLnow.com for publication. The resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, states that decriminalization could save the state money, keep non-violent offenders out of jail and allow police to focus on more serious crime.
Dear Virginia State Crime Commission,
Thank you all for your hard work on studying this critical issue of whether current marijuana laws are appropriate. The prohibition of marijuana has undoubtedly caused a myriad of unfortunate consequences. Among them the incarceration of many, but disproportionately minorities, for non-violent transgressions. Virginia has severe racial disparities in its arrest rates as well. It’s shocking that one in ten African American males in their 30s are in jail or prison on any given day.
Our state boasts long and punitive sentencing guidelines for simple possession of marijuana. Incarceration often produces hardened criminals. The absence of compassionate rehabilitation for those who would welcome treatment for drug abuse is inhumane.
Recidivism is an enormous problem in the US. Nearly 68 out of every 100 prisoners are rearrested within three years. Educational and career opportunities are lost due to having a criminal record for a minor offense. The lack of lawful opportunities further encourages the vicious cycle of recidivism.
The Commonwealth of Virginia spends far too much on enforcement and incarceration for marijuana-related crimes in Virginia. According to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, “Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement, which is enough to open another 13,000 pre-K spots for kids.”
Our state spends more than $25,000 per inmate, at an annualized cost of approximately $1.5 billion. With a budget shortfall of $266 million per year, and a potential savings of at least $67 million for just reducing marijuana enforcement, the math is clear. Virginia cannot afford to continue down this path of investigating, arresting and incarcerating non-violent marijuana offenders.
Decriminalization has a positive effect, by reducing law enforcement spending on marijuana to better prioritize resources on serious crime. Lowering the unaffordable and unsustainable cost of our prison system, improving our state’s budget deficit and improving trust in law enforcement.
Obviously marijuana should not be used by developing children and adolescents. However, adults in the privacy of their own home should not have to fear legal repercussions for an activity that seems to cause no serious harm, especially in comparison to alcohol or tobacco, both of which are legal.
In closing, I ask that the State Crime Commission takes in to consideration not just the present, but the future. Virginia is respected as a bellwether for legislation by other, nearby states, including North Carolina, which has already decriminalized simple possession of marijuana.
Decriminalizing marijuana would send a powerful signal to our other neighbors and bring Virginia in to alignment with 22 other states who have done the same. We owe it to our fellow Virginians to give our laws a second look and determine if the the punishment really and truly does fit the crime.
ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected]. Letters may be edited for content and brevity.
Under the new policy, which took effect March 1, people caught with a small amount marijuana would not be appointed a lawyer if they have no criminal record and it’s their first pot possession offense.
According to a memo that court officials sent to the Arlington County Bar Association last month, some people caught with pot for the first time can enter a guilty plea and have the charge dismissed as long as they agree to meet “certain conditions” set by the court.
Offenders who qualify would have two weeks from arraignment to consult with an attorney if they choose, but wouldn’t be appointed one.
Though the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says “in all criminal prosecutions the accused… shall have assistance of counsel for his defense,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 1979 decision that the right to counsel only applies when a defendant faces imprisonment.
In this case, because the court is waiving jail time for those offenders, it does not legally need to appoint them counsel. Many other courts throughout the U.S. have also similarly waived imprisonment for first-time marijuana offenders.
Arlington’s Office of the Public Defender is protesting the policy on the grounds that it could unfairly affect people who can’t afford lawyers if they want them.
The office made its case in a rebuttal letter shared with ARLnow.com.
“While no doubt unintended, Arlington’s new policy will send us down a slippery slope towards the same scenario for poor people: no lawyers for indigent persons charged with personal-use marijuana possession cases where the court or prosecutor exclude jail time as a sentencing option,” the letter reads.
Matthew Foley, the office’s chief public defender, added that the new policy would “disproportionately affect minorities and immigrants” and possibly deprive them of their due process.
Foley argued that the policy could mislead people into thinking the charges would be expunged from their record, which they may not be. For citizens, he said, the consequences of a criminal record might include loss of educational opportunities, jobs, public benefits, student loans, and the ability to legally drive a car. For non-citizens, the consequences of such a record could mean deportation, the inability to become a citizen or re-enter the country.
“Liberty is not just about jail time,” he told ARLnow.com. “It’s about permanent criminal records, which affect you your entire life.”
Foley continued in the letter:
Assuming a typical indigent defendant can even get a free consultation with a private lawyer, how does that person parlay the attorney’s advice into getting due process? If the consulted lawyer advises that the police stop or search were unlawful, what will the indigent defendant without an appointed attorney be able to do with this advice? What if the person charged is innocent? How does the mere advice of the attorney lead to a just result? If the attorney tells the accused person that the case is weak, but he may be deported if he is found guilty, how does that help? The answer is clear: it will help no more than a doctor advising an uninsured, cash-strapped patient how to remove his tonsils, set a broken leg or cure his cancer.
But Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos disputed Foley’s argument and called his rhetoric “overheated.”
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) earlier this month proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in Virginia. The bill, SB 1269, would reduce marijuana possession to a civil offense punishable only by fines, much like a traffic ticket. Another bill introduced by State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D), SB 908, would have had similar effects.
Though the Senate’s Courts of Justice Committee did not approve the bills yesterday, it did promise more study on marijuana decriminalization, according to Ebbin’s office.
State lawmakers didn’t set aside every marijuana-related bill, however. The committee overwhelmingly advanced another bill, SB 1091, by a vote of 14-1. If enacted into law, that bill would make it so adults convicted of simple possession of marijuana wouldn’t automatically lose their driver’s license for six months, as is the current law.
“My marijuana reform legislation will end consequential outcomes for simple marijuana possession, particularly for communities of color,” Ebbin said in a statement. “Possession of marijuana shouldn’t impact future employment opportunities, or cause the suspension of your driver’s license.”
A Senate committee also advanced two bills having to do with LGBT equality yesterday. The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee gave its blessing to two bills, SB 783 and SB 822, “with strong, bipartisan support,” according to a press release from the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.
The bills, introduced by Ebbin and Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D), respectively, address nondiscrimination in public employment and target anti-LGBT practices in public housing.
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The incident happened around 10:30 p.m. Police say somebody walked past a car on the 4200 block of Campbell Avenue — the approximate location of the Shirlington parking garage — and noticed that the windows were down and two people were naked inside.
The witness found the scene to be suspicious and called police.
Officers arriving and found three people, all in their 20s, asleep in a Nissan sedan. A man, Kamal Ghammache-Mansour, and a woman, Natalie Nowel, were completely naked, according to a crime report. A third, Jaclyn Devino, was clothed.
Upon being woken up, the trio told police that they were on a “hippie trip” across the country and Arlington was one of their stops, a police spokeswoman said. The two who were naked said they removed their clothes because they were hot, according to the spokeswoman. (The temperature at the time was in the low-to-mid 80s.)
Ghammache-Mansour and Nowel were charged with indecent exposure. All three were charged with possession of marijuana.
According to a Google search and social media accounts, Ghammache-Mansour is a saxophonist and a member of a jazz-influenced hip hop group, Nowel is a freelance artist and Devino owns a “energy healing and coaching” business.
Arlington County Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Savage said the three did not elaborate on what their “hippie trip” stop in Arlington entailed. She warned against sleeping in one’s car, especially while naked, noting that Arlington residents are “pretty observant” about out-of-the-ordinary activity.
From an ACPD crime report:
INDECENT EXPOSURE, 160731054, 4200 block of S. Campbell Avenue. At approximately 10:31 p.m. on July 31, officers responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle. Upon officers arrival, they located three suspects asleep in the vehicle with two fully naked. Kamal Ghammache-Mansour, 26, of Albany CA, was arrested and charged with indecent exposure and possession of marijuana. Natalie Nowel, 21, of Boston MA, was arrested and charged with indecent exposure and possession of marijuana. Jaclyn Devino, 29, of Burlington VT, was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana.
Police say Zachary Van Dyke, 32, smoked pot with a 13-year-old student at his home. He also allegedly sold some pot to the teen.
Van Dyke was a teaching assistant at Gunston Middle School and a freshman basketball coach at Washington-Lee High School. He has been suspended by Arlington Public Schools and charged by police with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and distribution of marijuana.
Police say they’re seeking additional information from “anyone with past inappropriate encounters with this suspect.”
From an ACPD press release:
The Arlington County Police Department’s Drug Enforcement Unit is investigating a suspect involved in the distribution of marijuana to a juvenile victim. The suspect was a Teaching Assistant assigned to Gunston Middle School and a freshman basketball coach at Washington-Lee High School. He has been suspended by Arlington County Public Schools, pending the outcome of the investigation. Representatives with Arlington County Public Schools continue to cooperate with the police investigation.
The suspect, 32 year-old Zachary Van Dyke, was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and distribution of marijuana stemming from an incident on May 27, 2016. The investigation revealed that Van Dyke transported the 13 year-old juvenile victim to his residence where they smoked marijuana. Van Dyke also sold marijuana to the juvenile. Van Dyke was arrested and held on bond in the Arlington County Detention Facility.
The investigation into this incident is ongoing. Anyone with past inappropriate encounters with this suspect or who has additional information is asked to call Detective S. Proud at 703.228.7156 or email [email protected] To report information anonymously, contact the Arlington County Crime Solvers at 866.411.TIPS (8477).
Around 5 p.m., a man who claimed to have just smoked marijuana for the first time called 911 and said he couldn’t see and was having difficulty breathing.
He was evaluated by medics and voluntarily handed over the pot to police, according to scanner traffic.
Authorities were a bit skeptical about part of his claim, however. It was noted that the same guy — or, at least, someone at the same apartment — had called 911 on March 28 and reported breathing troubles after smoking weed for the first time.
In a press release, below, ACPD said the network sent parcels filled with marijuana from California to businesses and homes in the D.C. area. Thus far those businesses have not been identified, though police say warrants were executed at “various businesses and residences throughout the region.”
Two suspects — Dat T. Ngo and Kien V. Luong — have been arrested. Ngo was taken into custody at a nail salon in a Bethesda shopping center, ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. Drugs were seized from his vehicle, Bethesda Beat reported, citing a witness account.
Luong was arrested in Los Angeles, where he lives, and is awaiting extradition.
“This is an ongoing and active investigation [spanning] multiple states,” Savage said. “It’s likely we’ll see additional arrests in the future.”
In August 2015, a joint investigation was initiated by the United States Postal Inspection Service and the Arlington County Police Department regarding the importation of marijuana into the Washington Metropolitan Region. As a result of this intensive investigation, a large-scale distribution network was identified as sending parcels from California to businesses in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, Dat T. Ngo, of Alexandria, VA, was arrested by Montgomery County Police on an outstanding Arlington County warrant. Subsequent to his arrest, search warrants were executed at various businesses and residences throughout the region. The Northern Virginia Financial Initiative with Washington/Baltimore HIDTA also provided assistance. Search warrants were also executed in the State of California with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Los Angeles Police Department. Kien V. Luong of Los Angeles, CA, was arrested on an outstanding Arlington County warrant and was being held at the Los Angeles County Jail awaiting extradition to the Commonwealth.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) has again proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana for personal use in Virginia.
Ebbin, who has won the endorsement of the pro-pot group NORML, proposed a similar bill last year, but it failed in the conservative Virginia General Assembly.
The bill, SB 104, would reduce marijuana possession to a civil offense punishable only by fines, like a traffic ticket, rather than jail time. It would also reduce the criminal penalties for marijuana distribution and possession with the intent to distribute.
Would you like to see marijuana decriminalized in Virginia?
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The Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is in Richmond today, lobbying legislators to support Sen. Adam Ebbin’s marijuana decriminalization bill.
Ebbin’s bill, SB 686, has been referred to the 15-member Courts of Justice Committee, and if it’s approved would need to be approved by the full Senate before going through the same process in the House of Delegates.
Both houses are controlled by Republicans, which has traditionally been the party opposing marijuana legalization efforts nationwide. For that reason, Ebbin and NORML are targeting decriminalization, instead of NORML’s preferred policy, recreational legalization.
“Decriminalization is the first step in the process of fully legalizing cannabis,” Virginia NORML writes on its website’s section for SB 686. “Virginia is slow to change its laws in general; it often takes several years to make any significant changes, and usually requires support from both Republicans and Democrats. Our goal is to make the simple change to stop charging people with a criminal misdemeanor for simple possession.”
More than 60 marijuana reform advocates converged on the state capital today to discuss the legislation with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. If it passes, Ebbin’s bill would reduce the penalty for marijuana possession from a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a $100 citation payable to the state’s Literary Fund. According to Ebbin’s legislation, Virginia currently spends $67 million a year investigating, prosecuting and jailing marijuana offenders.
“Criminalizing marijuana disrupts careers and families resulting in more harm than the drug itself and decriminalization is a commonsense step to allow law enforcement to focus its efforts on serious crimes,” Ebbin said in a press release.
(Updated at 4:40 p.m.) State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), who represents part of Arlington, has proposed a bill that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana for personal use.
Ebbin’s bill, SB686, is similar to the marijuana decriminalization statute that went into effect in the District earlier this year. (D.C. has since voted to legalize marijuana.) SB686 changes simple marijuana possession from a crime punishable by a $500 fine, and/or up to 30 days in jail, to a civil infraction — a ticket — with a maximum $100 penalty, payable to the state’s Literary Fund.
The distribution of marijuana would remain a crime, but would be reduced to a lesser misdemeanor for all marijuana quantities less than a pound. Growing up to up to six marijuana plants would be considered personal use and not an intent to distribute.
“I don’t think marijuana decriminalization has ever been introduced in the Virginia Senate,” Ebbin told the TV station. “I think criminalizing marijuana, disrupting careers and families, does more harm than the drug itself does.”
The bill has a co-patron in Del. Kaye Kory, the Falls Church Democrat.
“Marijuana decriminalization is trending across the country and this bill will get us talking about it in Virginia,” Kory told ARLnow.com this afternoon. “The conversation will go back and forth over what steps we want to take and when to take them. There’s no telling how long the process will take, but the important thing is that we’re having the conversation.”
There’s some history of support for marijuana-related reforms among local politicians and politically-active groups. In 2012, then-Del. David Englin (D) proposed studying whether Virginia ABC stores should some day sell marijuana. In April, the Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans hosted a forum to discuss marijuana sentencing reform.
Ebbin’s bill will be considered once the Virginia General Assembly convenes in January. With both the House of the Delegates and the state Senate now controlled by Republicans, the bill seemingly faces long odds of passage.
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