Norfolk residents urge council to support pot decriminalization

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At a Norfolk City Council work session Tuesday, Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander expressed doubts about the city's ability to get marijuana decriminalization bill through  the General Assembly in 2017. At a later meeting, council member Thomas Smigiel sought to reopen the discussion.  (Photo Adrienne Mayfield/Southside Daily)

At a Norfolk City Council work session Tuesday, Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander expressed doubts about the city’s ability to get marijuana decriminalization bill through the General Assembly in 2017. At a later meeting, council member Thomas Smigiel sought to reopen the discussion. (Photo Adrienne Mayfield/Southside Daily)

While it looked for a moment like Norfolk City Council might puff, puff, pass on the opportunity to back marijuana decriminalization legislation, pleas from city residents reopened the discussion on Tuesday.

Four residents spoke out at a city council meeting in favor of Norfolk promoting legislation that would push the state to decriminalize simple marijuana possession at the 2017 Virginia General Assembly.

Currently Virginia law mandates that a person caught (for the first time) with less than half an ounce of marijuana could be imprisoned for up to 30 days and fined $500. Punishments get more serious the more often a person is charged.

“I’ve seen way too many people hurt by small possession charges,” said resident Scott Harris. “I’ve seen also that people’s lives can be destroyed by a simple possession charge.”

Business owner Luke Downing spoke about the economic impact of imprisoning people for marijuana. He cited a Sept. 28 article by the Huffington Post in which Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe said that it costs about $59 a day to keep people in jail for simple possession.

“What are we getting for those dollars,” Downing asked. “What is the opportunity cost of locking someone up and taking them away from their family?”

The public comments followed an earlier city council work session where Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander attempted to nix the idea of adding marijuana decriminalization to their 2017 legislative agenda.

Alexander cited an upcoming election year in the General Assembly as a reason why city council should halt their efforts until at least 2018.

“I don’t think we should take any action,” Alexander said during the work session. “We should continue the conversation. Maybe in 2018 something will be ready.”

During the later meeting, some city council representatives did not agree.

City council member Thomas Smigiel advocated for a November vote on whether or not to add marijuana decriminalization to the legislative agenda.

“I know the mayor’s conversation about this earlier and how difficult it is. I still feel as a city we should put some type of statement together and consider that as part of the package when we do vote on it,” Smigiel said.

“We should have some type of statement ready to vote it down or vote it forward, even if it’s a simple statement,” he added. “Something. It’s got to be something.”

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