State officials meet about decriminalizing marijuana

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) -- Marijuana may be decriminalized next year. On Monday, state officials held a meeting to talk about the possibility of it.

Decriminalization would mean people in possession of small amounts of marijuana would be charged with a civil penalty instead of criminal. Instead of jail time, the person in possession would pay a fine.

The Greater Augusta Prevention Partners (GAPP) and Harrisonburg NORML spoke to State Officials at the meeting in Richmond. According to Keri Jones, Coordinator for GAPP, there was a crowd of about 90 people at the meeting and around 30 spoke.

The Greater Augusta Prevention Partners is against decriminalization. They say their main concern if the General Assembly passes this is that marijuana would get into the hands of young children.

"We want the youth to know that marijuana is dangerous, and it's not just a fun drug, that there are consequences to using marijuana," said Jones.

Harrisonburg NORML is on the opposite side in favor of decriminalization. They are concerned concerned about how many people are landing in jail because of marijuana. They sent WHSV their statement they made to the board today made by Jenn-Michelle Pedini who is the Executive Director of Virginia NORML:

"Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to address the commission in response to Mr. Drabert’s well-executed, meticulous report.

Thank you Senator Norment for drafting the request to the Virginia State Crime Commission, and outlining such important, thoughtful questions.

According to data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and Virginia State Police, marijuana possession arrests in Virginia increased 76% from 2003-2014, 106% for African Americans, while during the same time period, the national average decreased 6.5%. Virginia has remained one of the most punitive states in the nation for marijuana possession, spending around $70M and arresting over 22,000 annually for possession. As Mr. Drabert alluded to, African Americans are disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization. Comprising only 20% of Virginia’s population, African Americans are arrested 3 times more than whites despite equal usage rates.

Virginia NORML supports the policy option of decriminalization with escalating penalty structure.

In your deliberations, I hope you will consider that removal of jail time alone does not accomplish the intent of decriminalization, which is of course to reduce crime in the Commonwealth, and as Senator Ebbin mention, does not alleviate the overly punitive, lifetime collateral consequences of a non-expungeable offense.”

GAPP says if the General Assembly does decide to decriminalize marijuana, they want to be involved in the conversation.

"We would like to be included in the discussion about how much marijuana people can have, how little marijuana people can have, and to have a safe zone in how those laws come to play," said Jones.

Both groups say this is a slow process and does not mean it will lead to marijuana legalization in Virginia.

The General Assembly votes on this in 2018.