State lawmakers consider decriminalizing marijuana

Proposal would make possession of small amounts a civil offense

ROANOKE, Va. – Virginia leaders are talking about possibly decriminalizing marijuana.

The State Crime Commission says it would prevent more than 10,000 arrests across the commonwealth every year.

The report says police in the commonwealth arrested more than 133,000 people on first-offense marijuana charges in just the last decade. Now, state lawmakers are looking at ways to change that.

"It’s a real shame that someone might get caught with a small amount of marijuana, it can really derail their life," NORML Roanoke Valley Chapter deputy director Melanie Crovo said.

Under current Virginia law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is a criminal offense. A first conviction could result in up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

"They might lose their job. They currently can lose their driver’s license which might mean they lose their job, students might lose funding for college, we have parents who might lose custody of their children," Crovo said.

Local health experts tell 10 News it's something they see frequently.

"Just from looking at number of patients I treat on a daily basis, I’d say probably half of patients admit to using it," Carilion toxicologist Dr. Paul Stromberg said.

Now a state lawmaker is working on a proposal that would change marijuana possession to a civil offense.

"We were putting too many people away. It costs me about $28,000 per prisoner to house a prisoner and we should be decriminalizing some of these drug offenses," Gov. Terry McAuliffe said.

Not everyone is on board.

"There is a perception among some that having this happen is just one step towards legalization and some groups are concerned that legalization might have a negative impact on our society," Crovo said.

But local advocate Melanie Crovo said that's not the case.

"It's not legalization. It doesn't mean everyone's allowed to go around smoking weed. It's not legalization. This just treats it more like a traffic penalty so that you don't have your life derailed due to a minor incident," Crovo said.

According to the State Crime Commission report, eight states and D.C. allow recreational use, seven states have civil or non-criminal penalties, and five states have a mix of civil and criminal penalties.