Senator calls for marijuana decriminalization

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.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would make simple marijuana possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira/VCUCNS
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would make simple marijuana 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.”

Capital News Service
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Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.


  1. Replacing one drug with another is just an excuse to escape the reality of an ever growing problem in our nation. I used marijuana for 10 years and thought as most people who use it that it didn’t affect my judgment at all and that it was my “right” to choose. Unfortunately what most people don’t tell you is that the use of ANY drug does affect our minds — prescription or otherwise. It stupifies our thought processes, makes us paranoid and in general helps us to avoid our problems. If you want to use marijuana as a “recreation” then get ready to see car accidents increase because people are driving stoned which is no different than drunk. Get ready to see our kids even more socially anxious than they are today with twitter, facebook and any other host of “avoidance” tool which deprives them of the ability to talk with someone face to face. I for one will continue to fight for the freedom from the mind numbing affects of this recreation and only pray that others will continue as well.

    • Pardon me, but driving under the influence of cannabis is VERY different from driving under the influence of alcohol. Both of those I do agree are dangerous, and should be illegal, but lets be clear that there is a HUGE difference. Furthermore, no one is advocating for legal teenage use.

      None of this is even the point here, we are talking about reducing the penalties for simple possession. We are not talking about legalization and regulation.

      As to your point regarding replacing one drug for another, knowing the scores of people that alcohol, tobacco, prescription pain medications, and other illicit drugs kill from year to year, we would do ourselves a favor to swap each of those for cannabis given that cannabis is impossible to overdose on, and that there are 0 recorded overdose deaths in all of history.

  2. I’m a conservative values kind of guy. I pretty much identify as a republican, although I also agree on a lot of independent viewpoints.

    I’m also someone who prefers cannabis over alcohol, I would / do use cannabis responsibly recreationally and medicinally.

    The prohibition of cannabis is silly, but its really not funny. Its time to end it. People who are found guilty of violating the laws regarding cannabis are harmed by those laws much more than they would ever have been by the use of cannabis.

    There are people who think that cannabis ruins lives, and so when someone is arrested and found guilty of breaking laws related to the prohibition of cannabis, those people don’t miss the opportunity to use the legal system to ruin that persons life.

    Decriminalization is a small step in the right direction, lets take that first step.

  3. @Brian Kelly: So it’s legalization or nothing in your mind? Do you think you are helping? You want legalization, but none of what you said is helping to get us (Virginia) closer. Yes, decriminalization is not legalization. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT! We have to start somewhere. Get the citizens and politicians of Virginia comfortable with the idea first. Educate them. Help them realize that those of us who prefer marijuana over alcohol are not criminals and have the right to use marijuana. We will spend WAY less by ticketing instead of charging people. That comment you made about it costing money to have police hand out tickets makes no sense and was pulled out of thin air. If people don’t pay their tickets then they need to pay the consequences. That might not be the correct way to go about it, but we can change that once the law has been approved. Again, we have to start somewhere. Either get on board and help or shut your mouth. You aren’t helping.

  4. Don’t be fooled by “decriminalization” because citizens are still going to be treated like common criminals for marijuana under it. This is what Kevin Sabet wants.

    Citizens will STILL be forced to the dangerous black market and a shady illegal street drug dealer to purchase their marijuana. Getting caught buying it is STILL a crime they will arrest and jail you for. Then, they will also most likely try to FORCE you to either mandatory community service and/or rehab, and if you don’t comply, guess what? JAILTIME!

    They also fail to mention the additional huge cost of court costs which can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars on top of the relatively small ticket/fine.

    If you fail to pay these expensive court costs you will be in “the system” as a criminal.With a warrant out for your arrest and incarceration.

    No thanks!

    Also, we will still be wasting our tax dollars sending police around to ticket marijuana users and wasting police manpower and resources.

    Instead of allowing our police the time, manpower and resources to protect us all from real, dangerous criminals who actually commit crimes with victims and pose a real threat to society.

    Why else do you think some politicians are so EAGER to “decriminalize”, instead of LEGALIZE?

    Don’t Let’em Fool Us!!!

    If you can’t purchase it legally, then it isn’t legal.

    If you have to fear a monetary fine/ticket which if you don’t pay and/or show up in court to handle, you then become a criminal with a warrant out for your arrest, and when convicted (yes convicted, as in crime.) you will then be forced into free manual labor and/or forced drug rehabilitation to be used as another statistic prohibitionists love to flaunt about supposed “marijuana addicts”, then….No, it’s not legal!

    This will not suffice! Getting caught purchasing marijuana is still considered a serious “drug deal” and you will be prosecuted for it!


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