The front steps of the Virginia State Capitol. Lawmakers were unable to introduce a marijuana legalization bill during the legislative session due to lack of cooperation. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), has shown support for a medical marijuana legalization bill, and supporters say that measure could be introduced next year. (Photo by Geoffrey A. Cooper/VCU MMJ)
By Geoffrey A. Cooper
In Virginia, one pull on a joint has dire consequences –– particularly if you are black.
A new data visualization website by the American Civil Liberties Union, theuncovery.org, shows that almost every half hour a Virginia resident is arrested for marijuana possession. Nationally, blacks and whites consume marijuana at the same levels, yet a black person is almost four times likely to get arrested for possession.
The Uncovery website also states that black people in Virginia are almost three times likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. Of the Virginia drug arrests that happened in 2010, 53.4 percent were because of marijuana possession –– 18,756 arrests. Arlington, Botetourt, Smyth, Montgomery and Warren counties had racial disparities above the national average, 3.73; meaning blacks in these counties were more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
The tool allows users to view instantly the gaps and racial disproportions when it comes to marijuana arrests; the rate of marijuana arrests nationwide; and the amount of money each state spends implementing marijuana laws. The Uncovery website relies on 2010 Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Census data found in an ACLU in-depth report published last year, The War on Marijuana: In Black and White.
A REVOLVING DOOR
Currently, there are no outright marijuana legalization laws in Virginia. For some residents, a conviction of possessing even the smallest amounts of marijuana often leads to exorbitant fines, losing driving privileges, loss of employment, or worse, jail time.
Dr. John Reitzel, who teaches drugs, crime and policing at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the federal government continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on enforcing drug laws, yet street drugs, like marijuana, remain as cheap it was 30 years.
“We’re not having an effect,” Reitzel said. “We’re imprisoning people to this cycle of jail to prison, to civilian life, back to jail and then prison.”
Proponents of marijuana legalization say a primary incentive for decriminalizing marijuana is that the action would save states millions annually when it comes to the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. In 2010, the federal government in total spent more than $3.6 billion enacting marijuana laws –– $67.2 million of that total came from Virginia. Critics continue to argue that marijuana usage should be viewed as a public health issue –– like alcohol –– not criminal, thus keeping non-violent offenders from unnecessary incarceration or harsher penalties.
Dr. Sarah Scarborough, who works with prisoner re-entry programs at Richmond City Jail, said many non-violent drug offenders at the jail are most likely long time habitual offenders that have years of drug history and usage. Last year, the Richmond Police Department made 1,186 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
“The majority of the time, the crimes they commit are due to their addiction –– either it’s an action committed when under the influence and thus acting in manners they wouldn’t if sober, or trying to support their habit and therefore rob, break and enter, etc.,” Scarborough said. “Addicts need recovery treatment –– they need a program and environment that will support sobriety and recovery. As such, programs are the way to go and truly the answer to having the revolving door of the jails and prisons to stop spinning around and around.”
Scarborough said it costs Virginia about $25,000 annually to house an inmate. She said incarcerating someone for a drug conviction, especially one that is low-level, doesn’t help because they are sitting in prison “becoming a better criminal,” instead seeking rehabilitation.
“A program on the street that will help rehabilitate costs about $5,000 a year –– that’s five people that could go through a program –– which most often has better results than in the jail,” she said.
CHANGE IN ATTITUDES
Current polls suggest that the nation is becoming more tolerant of marijuana use and that Commonwealth voters’ support some forms of marijuana legalization. A March 31 Quinnipiac University poll states that Virginians overwhelmingly support medical marijuana legalization, 84 percent to 13 percent. Yet, recreational marijuana use remains divided, 46 percent supporting the measure and 48 percent opposing.
Ed McCann, director of Virginia NORML –– a civic league that lobbies for marijuana legalization in Virginia –– said the financial success of marijuana legalization in Colorado has other states rethinking its stance. With an economy still ailing for relief, McCann said states could draw more revenue by taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.
Just recently, the Washington, D.C., City Council voted to decriminalize certain amounts of marijuana. Lawmakers in surrounding states like Maryland, West Virginia and Tennessee are now debating several marijuana legalization bills.
Many residents were hopeful The Virginia General Assembly would come back this year and introduce some type of marijuana legalization bill. Those efforts were met with heavy opposition.
Governor Terry McAuliffe stated earlier this year he has no intentions of rewriting Virginia’s current marijuana enforcement laws. McCann said some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wanted to make moves toward medical marijuana legalization this session, but the idea received push-back from state House Republicans.
Social conservative, Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, introduced a bill earlier this year that would’ve eliminated 1979 legislation that allows very limited medical marijuana use. The bill was later defeated.
McCann said it might take some time, but it’s not long before marijuana law reforms are imminent in Virginia.
“It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s ‘when,’” McCann said. “For the simple fact that people under 40, 45 –– especially under 35 –– overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization. When they get to be in the halls of power, the law will change.
“There’s no question, even among opponents now. The question is how quicker can it happen?”
A PATH TO DESTRUCTION
Although attitudes toward marijuana are evolving, opponents still charge that the topic is an issue of morality, and that public officials would set poor examples for youth if legal marijuana use were allowed.
“Underage youth will tell you that it is currently not difficult to purchase marijuana and it’s not legal, I can’t even imagine how many more young people under 21 would try it if their fear of consequences and their perception of its harm became less than it is now,” said Lisa Sadler, president of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County, Inc.
Sadler said she fears outright marijuana use could lead to children experimenting with harder drugs and steeper crimes.
“We have enough on our plates trying to convince parents and teens that underage drinking is a public health issue and very dangerous.”
FBI data from 2010 suggests teenagers and young adults were more likely that year to get arrested for possessing marijuana, with 77 percent of those arrests happening to people 29 or younger, 62 percent were younger than 25, and more than one-third were under age 18.
Regina Whitsett –– interim executive director of Chesterfield SAFE, a substance abuse prevention agency –– said children are receiving mixed messages about marijuana use. She said legalization supporters continue to portray the drug as a benefactor because of its medicinal effects, instead of also explaining how the drug damages the body.
“If it is legalized, then just like alcohol, the youth are going to have access to it,” Whitsett said. “The message the young people are getting (are) it’s not that bad. Not the fact that it can hurt your brain, it can hurt your memory, your cognitive ability.”
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