NORFOLK — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring joined efforts to decriminalize marijuana in recent op-ed, and “start moving towards legal and regulated adult use in Virginia.”
Herring wrote the current approach costs taxpayers $81 million per year and, “even if a Virginian avoids jail time for marijuana possession, they can still be stuck with a criminal record, lose their job, student aid, certain public benefits including housing assistance, and it can even affect custody rights.”
Jenn Michelle Pedini is the executive director of Virginia NORML, a marijuana law reform organization, and said Herring’s “support for not only decriminalizing but legalizing and regulating adult-use marijuana really moves this important issue to the front burner of Virginia politics.”
“In the past, we’ve had conversations focused around policy, now we can have a public conversation about the real implications,” Pedini said.
The group supports the “fines not crimes” approach for marijuana possession charges that even as a misdemeanor “comes with lifelong collateral consequences that can’t be expunged,” they said.
Eastern Virginia Medical School researcher Andrew Plunk co-authored a 2019 study concluding both adults and children benefit from decriminalizing marijuana but not from legalizing it.
“Legalizing cannabis likely doesn’t benefit youth, who have a lot to lose by being arrested and interacting with the criminal justice system,” he said.
Plunk noted although he welcomes calls for decriminalization, “we should also consider removing all criminal penalties for minors so that the arrest disparities that AG Herring mentions aren’t perpetuated among our youth.”
Studies from The Virginia Crime Commission show people of color are disproportionately affected by current marijuana laws with “African Americans comprised 46% of all first offense possession arrests from 2007 to 2016, despite comprising just 20% of Virginia’s population and despite studies consistently showing that marijuana usage rates are comparable between African Americans and white Americans,” Herring said.
Herring also commended Hampton Roads attorneys who “have taken sensible and courageous steps to reduce the number of simple marijuana possession cases moving through the courts.”
In a January letter to city officials, Gregory Underwood the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Norfolk declared his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.
Underwood wrote Norfolk courts will dismiss all “misdemeanor marijuana possession cases” as a means to “avoid disparate impact on citizens and criminalization of poverty.”
According to Norfolk Police Department records, they made 769 arrests for first-offense marijuana possession in 2018.
So far, police have charged 352 people with first-offense marijuana possession putting them on schedule to decrease the number of arrests by about 8.5 percent at the end of the year.
Norfolk Police spokesman Officer Daniel Hudson said police “do not have opinions on legislative matters, as we are law enforcement officers who have the duty to enforce whatever law is passed.”
Herring also called on localities to take action to as soon as possible “release from jail, pardon and expunge the records of those whose convictions would not have occurred under more rational standards.”
Herring said this would not only provide justice for affected residents and free up law enforcement resources, but it would also increase “trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.”
Records for first-offense marijuana arrests in Virginia Beach were not immediately available.