RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s top prosecutor wants to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, saying these convictions are going up and impact people of color the most.
Local attorneys see a lot of simple possession of marijuana cases each week. Russ Stone, of Richmond, has been practicing for nearly 30 years. After returning from court Tuesday, he said of his four cases – one was a simple possession charge.
“I get from anywhere from 4 to 6 a week,” he added. “They are in a car with a broken tail light, and that’s what gets them pulled over in the first place. And then they find marijuana in the car.”
Another Richmond-based attorney, Ed Riley, takes on cases each week for pot possession as well. In cases he’s handled, law enforcement officers have used the probable cause to search people’s homes because they allegedly “smelled pot.” People who are more well off aren’t stopped as often by police, Riley says. So, their vehicles aren’t searched as often as someone who might not have the money to repair a tail light.
According to the Attorney General’s office, the number of first time marijuana convictions has gone up in Virginia by 53 percent, from 2008 to 2017. Arrests for marijuana possession have gone up by 115 percent from 2003 to 2017.
A report from the Virginia Crime Commission shows African Americans make up nearly half of first offense possession arrests from 2007 to 2016, despite only making up less than a quarter of Virginia’s population.
Stone hasn’t necessarily seen this spike in cases, but has noticed most of his clients are people of color, even though he knows people from all age ranges and backgrounds use pot.
Over the years, Stone how courts are changing their approach to these charges.
“They will order someone to do some community service or take a class. If someone does that for a first offense, the charge will be dismissed,” Stone explained. “That is an instance in were the law is already evolving to were as to make marijuana less serious.”
In an op-ed published last weekend, Attorney General Mark Herring explained that he wants to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, seeing how it impacts people of color and youth.
“I’ve seen so many young people have future opportunities limited by an arrest or conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana and it can impact their future education, it can affect housing and school aid,” Herring explained.
Other states have decriminalized the use of small amounts of weed and legalized it too. Herring hopes if the General Assembly takes up decriminalization next year, it would be the first step towards legalizing adult use as well. He’s been speaking with attorneys general from other states to better understand how to approach legislation and enforcement.
“It’s time Virginia change our laws on cannabis and there’s a smarter way,” he said.
Stone says he would back decriminalizing as well as legalizing marijuana in the long term, because it could be treated like a substance such as alcohol and cigarettes which are regulated. If people don’t want others to smoke marijuana, Stone says they could create public health campaigns to educate Virginians like organizations did with cigarettes.
Other attorneys I spoke to had mixed feelings about decriminalization and legalization of marijuana.
According to a poll released last year from the Watson Center at Christopher Newport University, 76 percent of Virginia voters are for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it punishable by fines rather than jail.
Russ Stone also serves as a legal analyst for 8News.