By Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A senator from Northern Virginia is urging the General Assembly to decriminalize marijuana possession, as about 20 other states have done.
Currently, Virginians arrested with a small amount of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge, a $500 criminal fine and a 30-day jail sentence. Senate Bill 686, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would make simple possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.
“I think it’s important to note this bill does not legalize marijuana,” Ebbin said at a press conference Thursday. “It decriminalizes it – it lessens the penalties for possession of marijuana.”
Ebbin said the state’s law on marijuana has been harmful to Virginia: “It makes criminals out of regular, nonviolent citizens. It financially burdens our commonwealth to the tune of $67 million a year in law enforcement costs.”
Ed McCann, policy director for the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform for Marijuana Laws, said it is senseless to prosecute people for having or using small amounts of marijuana.
“Arrests make no impact on the cannabis market and have not reduced the access to children,” McCann said. “And they have made getting jobs, housing and education more difficult for Virginians … A conviction for a drug charge or an arrest can cause far more harm than the use of cannabis itself.”
Each year, McCann said, Virginia arrests about 20,000 citizens – including 2,000 minors – for possessing marijuana.
McCann said Virginia should send children this message: “Don’t use cannabis. It’s an adult activity like alcohol and sex. Your brains are developing, and cannabis can possibly affect it. Don’t think that if something is legal for adults, then it is OK for you to use.”
The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP endorsed SB 686 on grounds that African Americans are arrested on marijuana charges more often than whites.
In a press release, NAACP leader Shirley Ginwright thanked Ebbin “for recognizing and addressing the disproportionate arrest rates and the economic impact marijuana arrests and incarceration has had on the communities.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia cited similar reasons for its support of SB 686. Frank Knaack, director of public policy and communication for the Virginia ACLU, said marijuana laws have a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the commonwealth.
In Virginia, African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, according to a 2010 national study by the ACLU. But African Americans are 2.8 times more likely than white to get arrested for marijuana possession.
“In Fairfax, Chesterfield and Loudon counties, they are three times more likely to get arrested,” Knaack said. “And in Arlington County, they’re 7.8 times more likely to get arrested for doing the same thing.
“So from our prospective, the racial disparity issue is extremely important, and it’s something that we hope this bill will start to address.”
People convicted of marijuana possession face having a criminal record the rest of their lives – which can hurt career prospects and their overall future. In Virginia, a second conviction for possessing less than half an ounce of cannabis can draw a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, and the defendant may lose his or her driver’s license.
“The bottom line is, small possession of marijuana shouldn’t interrupt your life,” Ebbin said. “We don’t arrest people for possessing a six pack of beer.”