Virginia: Lawmakers Quash Decriminalization Effort

By a margin of nearly 3 to 1, voters in the Old Dominion state release that they back changing Virginia’s cannabis penalties—penalties that weigh in among the toughest in the nation. Yet, on Wednesday, members of the Senate Committee for the Virginia Courts of Justice voted by a margin of 2 to 1 to deny legislation that sought to do just that.

Welcome to pot politics in Virginia.

Every year, Virginia police make about 20,000 arrests for cannabis possession—an annual total that is the twelfth highest in the US. Those arrested are charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a criminal record, and receiving up to a 500-dollar fine.

State advocates believed that 2015 would be the year that lawmakers change to end this practice. In December, Democrat Sen. Adam Ebbins filed legislation, Senate Bill 686, to reclassify minor cannabis possession offenses as a civil matter, punishable by no more than a 100-dollar ticket—no arrest, no incarceration, and no threat of what could be a lifelong criminal record.

On Tuesday of this week, the answers of a just-published Christopher Newport University survey stated that 71 percent of registered Virginians back this policy change. Only 26 percent of respondents endorsed building the status quo.

Nonetheless, less than 24 hours after the poll’s release, representatives of the Senate Courts Committee chose to reject SB 686 by a vote of 9 to 5, with all nine Republicans on the board voting ‘no.’ (All five ‘yes’ votes were from Democrats.) The board took the vote after allowing the bill’s enthusiast only five minutes to publicly make their point.

The denial of Virginia Republicans to crucially determine the measure came as a shock to statewide followers, particularly members of Virginia NORML, who had spent the weeks prior to the board hearing generating some 3,500 letters to the committee in support of the bill, creating press conferences and a lobby day in Richmond, and even assemble a billboard marketing SB 686 that was shown for weeks just outside of the state capitol.

Yet, Virginia supporters are far from quitting. “This vote, far from signaling defeat, is a sign of progress in the Commonwealth,” said Erik Altieri, national NORML Communications Director and a Board Member of Virginia NORML. “Senate Bill 686 was historic because it was the first time the problem of decriminalization has ever been discussed in the state Senate. It won the sold support of the Committee’s Democrats. We will gain off of our efforts this year and return in 2016, smarter and tougher than ever, with the support of over 70 percent of Virginia followers at our backs.”

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