Virginia weighs the pros and cons of decriminalizing marijuana

By Rachel Lucas - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

ROANOKE (WSLS 10) - A landmark first step has been taken toward marijuana-related criminal justice reform in Virginia as the Virginia State Crime Commission agrees to undertake the official study of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

As the law stands now, anyone caught with marijuana is charged with a criminal misdemeanor. Decriminalization would mean those caught with small amounts would only be given a civil fine, as opposed to a criminal charge that would remain on their record and potentially cause the loss of a driver's license, employment or future job opportunities.

Dr. Melanie Crovo, the Deputy Director of the Roanoke Valley chapter of Virginia NORML, a national non-profit for the reform of marijuana laws, said decriminalization would keep good, non-violent people out of jail.

"It's still illegal, the same as speeding is illegal, but instead of this being on a criminal record and following you around for the rest of your life, if you happen to be caught with marijuana as an adult, then you would just pay a fine," Crovo said.

She says Virginia's harsh punishment is not only ruining the reputation of good people caught with small amounts of marijuana, but also leads to jail overcrowding and unnecessary use of police resources for non-violent crimes.

"If you look at why people are in jail in Virginia, a large number of those are in jail for drug crime, and a large percentage of those are in jail for marijuana crimes," Crovo said.

Virginia NORML says 22,000 people are arrested in Virginia annually because of marijuana-related offenses.

"This is a landmark first step toward marijuana-related criminal justice reform in Virginia, which currently lags far behind the national trend on marijuana policy. The Commission's decision Wednesday is an omen of significant marijuana policy changes that developing in Virginia," Virginia NORML said in a release.

While more and more people are urging lawmakers to make a change for adults, including the Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who proposed the study, there are still concerns about  how a law could residually affect children.

Ray Bemis, the director of the Roanoke Prevention Alliance, said although decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would only apply to adults, it could still have a negative impact on children and teens.

"If we increase access, which these changes in the law will do, access for youth to marijuana, then it is going to increase the underage use of marijuana," Bemis said.

Bemis said studies show that youth who experiment with drugs are more likely to have a substance abuse disorder as an adult.

"I just think that there needs to be a very slow and considered look at this issue in order to make sure that all of the safeguards, if at all possible are in place," Bemis said.

Bemis said  other states that have decriminalized and even legalized marijuana have seen a rise in the number of youths who use the drug.

Virginia NORML says they feel confident; however, the study will yield positive results.

"Now, the commission must honestly and openly examine the data from similarly-situated states to see the benefits and implications of marijuana decriminalization. This is an essential step at reforming Virginia's egregiously punitive system of marijuana prohibition, clinging to one of the harshest marijuana policies in the United States. Virginia lawmakers will now be able to introduce decriminalization bills in the General Assembly supported with the facts and conclusions of the decriminalization study," Virginia NORML said Wednesday in a release.

Virginia NORML said it expects legislation to be submitted in 2018 toward the decriminalization of marijuana. Now, the organization is urging the public to contact local board of supervisors as well as town and city councils to include the proposal in upcoming legislative agendas.  

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