PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — It is safe to say the new law in Virginia that legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana is a work in progress.
In order to get the law through the General Assembly, legislators had to compromise to get something approved.
“The illegality of marijuana was the product of bias against African Americans and Hispanics,” said Norfolk Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi.
Consider this: In Norfolk in 2016 and 2017, 80% first offense marijuana possession arrests were African Americans.
“We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was that bad,” said Fatehi.
So, in 2019, Fatehi wrote Norfolk’s policy not to prosecute simple possession of marijuana, and Norfolk became the first locality in Hampton Roads to do that.
“Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood set the vision and overall objective and I wrote the memo… and the new law is a work in progress,” Fatehi said.
Fatehi has found some inconsistencies in the new marijuana law.
“Things like you can possess marijuana, you can use marijuana, and you can give marijuana as long as it is a gift with no money in exchange, but you can’t buy marijuana for recreational purposes until 2024,” he said.
We pointed out to Fatehi that means people might go to the illegal markets to buy marijuana.
“Yes, in out-of-state places and transport it from other states,” he explained.
But you can’t legally do that.
“That’s right. That is the inconsistency, that’s right,” he said.
You can also grow four plants under the new law, but you can’t buy the seeds.
Fatehi acknowledges the current law may encourage some to break the law,
“You can’t buy the seeds or marijuana from somebody who continues to be committing a crime here in Virginia,” he said.
Virginia may love marijuana, but nationally, Uncle Sam does not, but has allowed states to experiment with the laws,
“The Federal Government treats marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance, which is the most dangerous substance that you can classify under DEA rules,” he said.
That is a huge inconsistency that forces people like Chris Mendoza to pay 100% for prescribed cannabis products at the Columbia Care Medical Cannabis Dispensary in Portsmouth.
Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) and all other Republicans voted against the marijuana bill.
“I have a real problem with the new law… People cannot use their health insurance for seeking CBD oil right now, and that is something our military veterans need for PTSD. And cannabis is proven to be very helpful… and the federal government needs to back off on any regulation around banking and areas affiliated with it,” Davis said.
That brings us back to prosecutor Fatehi.
“We will have a hands-off approach with marijuana possession, so long as people are using the marijuana responsibly and consistently with the law,” he said.
Fatehi will treat marijuana like alcohol.
We asked whether he would charge people with crimes for the seeds or transporting them illegally across state lines, or having more than the permitted four plants.
“I have a tough time seeing doing that for someone who is doing that reasonably and is not a dealer. The marijuana dealer is done case by case,” Fatehi said.
As we’ve reported, Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) was talking marijuana long before any of his General Assembly colleagues.
“I have been working on this for three terms now,” he said.
Heretick says it’s not a perfect law, but for now, it’s the best they could get through the General Assembly.
“There are a number of conflicts. For example, beginning July first of this year, it is legal to possess marijuana. It is legal to grow four plants per household, but it is not legal to buy or sell marijuana,” he said.
The original plan was to legalize marijuana in 2024, but that would mean three more years of prosecuting people for possession, which unfairly targets African Americans.
“So, I think the Northam administration was willing to compromise and bring it back to July first of this year in order to get that support to get the bill across the finish line,” he said.
There is also a re-enactment clause forcing the General Assembly to come back in January to work out the rest of the details of the law that has created these inconsistencies,
“It requires the General Assembly to go back and look at some of the legislation. Not looking at all of it, but we are going to make sure two consistent General Assemblies have the opportunity to have input into how the process evolves,” he said.