The Virginia State Crime Commission just revealed that 97.2 percent of the citizen comments they received supported decriminalization and eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession.
All across the country, states are legalizing marijuana and other cannabis products. As more and more medical uses for the drug are discovered, public opposition continues to steadily decrease. Combine that with the massive tax revenue that marijuana industries have generated for states like Colorado, and it is easy to see why 29 states have legalized medical marijuana in some form and eight states have legalized recreational cannabis.
Current polling estimates that 84 percent of Virginians support some form of marijuana decriminalization. However, Virginia remains one of the few remaining states not to make any progress on legalization. Activists are hoping to change that.
Last Monday, the Virginia State Crime Commission held a hearing on a number of marijuana proposals, which backers hope will lead to decriminalization and ultimately legalization. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization, though it is certainly a stepping stone towards that. Proponents want to amend Virginia's code to remove criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Instead of facing prison time, Virginians who are caught in possession would face state penalties akin to parking tickets.
Earlier this year, State Senator Tommy Norment formally requested that the State Crime Commission conduct a study to weigh the affects of marijuana decriminalization. After months of waiting, the panel has finally released the findings
The Commission found that a extremely small percentage of marijuana offenders serve time in prison solely for possession of the drug. Most are convicted of other crimes as well. The study took a snapshot of all of the inmates in jail on July 20, 2017, and found that 127 people were behind bars for marijuana possession alone. Of those, 36 had actually been convicted. However, jail time becomes much more likely for repeat offenders. During the 2016 fiscal year, there were 1,859 people convicted and sentenced in Virginia for subsequent marijuana possession, with 578 of these cases (31.1 percent) receiving jail time. The panel estimates that it costs around $79.28 a day to jail someone, coming out to more than $10,000 spent every day just to incarcerate someone charged with or convicted of marijuana possession.
A first-time marijuana offense in Virginia is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. The Commission noted that there is no clause within Virginia law that clarifies marijuana quantity suitable for "personal use." While prosecutors are given latitude to go easy on users, there is no delineation within the law to separate a casual smoker from someone caught with larger quantities of the drug.
Supporters of the proposal point to these criminal statistics and argue that Virginia taxpayers are paying to enforce outdated laws. Since just 2008, the number of first-time marijuana users charged in Virginia every year has almost doubled and with that increase in enforcement comes an increased cost to the taxpayers.
Critics of the decriminalization proposal argue that there are simply too many unknowns, especially regarding how decriminalization affects a state's DUI statistics. Even with all of the research done in recent years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported this year that the "scope and magnitude of the marijuana-impaired driving problem in this country cannot be clearly specified at this time." Others point to a seldom-mentioned part of federal law that puts transportation funding at risk if all of the federal requirements aren't met. If done incorrectly, marijuana decriminalization could cost Virginia eight percent of the $1,057,087,914 they expect to receive in federal transportation dollars next year. That comes out to almost an $85 million loss.
While the state government remains on the fence about marijuana decriminalization, public opinion is as lopsided as ever. In total, 3,850 Virginians took advantage of the State Crime Commission's public comment period and expressed their opinion on marijuana decriminalization. Of those, only 107 commenters voiced opposition to decriminalizing the drug.
State legislators are now left with three possible choices. They can (1) leave Virginia's marijuana laws untouched, (2) remove jail time as a punishment for possession, or (3) decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and prescribe civil penalties instead.
At this point, it is really uncertain what the Virginia legislature will do, if they even act at all. But given the fact that just 3,850 Virginians voiced their opinion on the matter, you should probably reach out to your elected representatives if you feel passionately about this.
We want to hear from you. Which of these three options should Virginia go with? Let us know in the comments below!