Virginians overwhelmingly want marijuana decriminalization. SB 954 would result in even more disparate outcomes for the poor and hit our minority communities hardest. SB954 is a flawed proposal that does nothing to address the racial disparities in policing practices or the criminal justice system.
Make no mistake. The bill before us today is not a decriminalization bill. At best, it is an expungement bill, but I believe it can’t even fairly be called that.
This bill does nothing to end the policing and prosecution of low-level offenses – including simple marijuana possession – that unnecessarily introduce thousands of people to the criminal justice system each year and add dramatically to the number of people who are needlessly incarcerated or saddled with a criminal conviction for an offense that should not be a crime.
This bill does increase the likelihood of disparate outcomes for different defendants based on wealth for two reasons: 1) it removes the threat of jail from the criminal offense which means that people who cannot afford attorneys must navigate the legal system without one while still facing the possibility of a criminal conviction and the attendant collateral consequences; and 2) it requires those who want to avail themselves of the “expungement” provisions to pay a fee of $300 in addition to other court costs.
This bill isn’t really an expungement bill since the conviction information will be captured in a brand-new data base that can be used for any purpose related to the “administration of law enforcement” and in prosecutions for second offenses.
Finally, this bill continues us down the path of turning our criminal justice system into a system that incentivizes policing for profit since the expungement process (available only to those who can pay a $300 fee) is a revenue generator for the State Police and an opioid epidemic fund, a particularly cruel irony given the absolute lack of evidence of any connection between marijuana use and addiction to heroin or prescription drugs.
Virginians want us to decriminalize marijuana possession, not to create a new fish trap that doesn’t do anything to address the racial disparities in our current criminal justice system nor address the high costs of continuing to criminalize simple possession.
Consider that, in Virginia:
The disparate racial impact of the enforcement of criminal laws against simple marijuana possession is startling. On average, African-Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than whites, even though usage rates are roughly the same. In Arlington County, our report shows African-Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana.
The costs of enforcing marijuana laws are excessive, outrageous and wasteful. In 2010, Virginia spent more than $67 million on this with no discernable benefit to the state. That is more than the Commonwealth has budgeted for the current fiscal year for statewide capital improvements to transportation and natural resources combined, and 14 percent more than the amount of general funds budgeted to support the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services – which deals with mental health and substance abuse treatment, among other things – for the entire 2016-18 biennium.
Virginia’s marijuana laws are penalizing everyday people, not drug kingpins. More than half of all drug arrests in Virginia are for marijuana, and the numbers are increasing. The number of marijuana arrests jumped from 13,032 in 2003 to 22,948 in 2014 – an alarming 76 percent increase.
All of this is happening at a time when Virginians strongly favor marijuana law reform. According to a 2016 Virginia Commonwealth University poll, nearly eight of every 10 Virginians supports decriminalization of simple marijuana possession, in which offenders would pay a civil penalty instead of facing criminal penalties.
To those who would ask, isn’t this bill a step forward? Isn’t it better than the current law? I would answer NO, and ask you to join me in voting against this bill.