Panel kills marijuana decriminalization bill

By Benjamin May
Capital News Service

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Wednesday killed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The committee voted 9-5 to “pass by indefinitely,” meaning Senate Bill 686, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is dead for this legislative session.

The vote came after 12 people spoke in support of the bill and eight spoke against it. The committee chairman, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, limited speakers to five minutes.

Opponents included Kevin Carroll of the Fraternal Order of Police, Thomas Bradshaw of the Virginia State Police and Richard L. Brehm of the Germanna Community College Police Department. They cited problems caused by the decriminalization of marijuana in states like Colorado and Maryland and in Washington, D.C.

Speaking in favor of Ebbin’s bill was Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Cassidy, who said thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder use marijuana to self-medicate. “To treat them as a criminal for a small amount is a tragedy,” Cassidy said.

Other supporters included Fairfax NAACP President Shirley Ginwright.

“This is not trying to legalize marijuana,” she said. “It is trying to fix something that is not working.” She said current laws result in the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of minorities for marijuana possession.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield, also supported Ebbin’s bill.

“I was the only one who was here in the late ’70s that voted to essentially decriminalize less than half an ounce,” said Saslaw, a member of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

“They said then that if you pass this, essentially it was going to be the end of western civilization. It’s been 35 years, and we’re still kicking.”

Currently, Virginians arrested with a small amount of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge, a $500 criminal fine and a 30-day jail sentence. SB 686 would have made simple possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted on SB 686 Marijuana; decriminalization of simple marijuana possession, penalty.

01/28/15 Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Courts of Justice (9-Y 5-N)

YEAS – Norment, Obenshain, McDougle, Stuart, Vogel, Stanley, Reeves, Garrett, Chafin – 9.

NAYS – Saslaw, Howell, Edwards, Puller, McEachin – 5.

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