Marijuana decriminalization bill shot down by panel

A bill that would decriminalize—but not legalize–marijuana possession, as about 20 other states have done, has been killed.

Update #1 — February 2, 2015; 7:14 AM

By Benjamin May

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Wednesday killed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The committee voted 9-5 to “pass by indefinitely,” meaning Senate Bill 686, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is dead for this legislative session. All of the Republicans on the panel voted in favor of that motion; all of the Democrats voted against it (the motion to pass the bill by, not the bill itself).

The vote came after 12 people spoke in support of the bill and eight spoke against it. The committee chairman, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, limited each side to five minutes.

Opponents included Kevin Carroll of the Fraternal Order of Police, Thomas Bradshaw of the Virginia State Police and Craig Branch, chief of the Germanna Community College Police Department and president of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. They cited problems caused by the decriminalization of marijuana in states like Colorado and Maryland and in Washington, D.C.

“This is not trying to legalize marijuana. It is trying to fix something that is not working.”

Speaking in favor of Ebbin’s bill was Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Cassidy, who said thousands of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder use marijuana to self-medicate. “To treat them as a criminal for a small amount is a tragedy,” Cassidy said.

Other supporters included Fairfax NAACP President Shirley Ginwright.

“This is not trying to legalize marijuana,” she said. “It is trying to fix something that is not working.” She said current laws result in the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of minorities for marijuana possession.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Springfield, also supported Ebbin’s bill. “I was the only one who was here in the late 70s that voted to essentially decriminalize less than half an ounce,” said Saslaw, a member of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. “They said then that if you pass this, essentially it was going to be the end of western civilization. It’s been 35 years, and we’re still kicking.”

Currently, Virginians arrested with a small amount of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge, a $500 criminal fine and a 30-day jail sentence. SB 686 would have made simple possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.

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Original — January 29, 2015

By Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira

A senator from Northern Virginia is urging the General Assembly to decriminalize marijuana possession, as about 20 other states have done.

Currently, Virginians arrested with a small amount of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge, a $500 criminal fine and a 30-day jail sentence. Senate Bill 686, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would make simple possession a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine.

“I think it’s important to note this bill does not legalize marijuana,” Ebbin said at a press conference Thursday. “It decriminalizes it – it lessens the penalties for possession of marijuana.”

Ebbin said the state’s law on marijuana has been harmful to Virginia: “It makes criminals out of regular, nonviolent citizens. It financially burdens our commonwealth to the tune of $67 million a year in law enforcement costs.”

Ed McCann, policy director for the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform for Marijuana Laws, said it is senseless to prosecute people for having or using small amounts of marijuana. “Arrests make no impact on the cannabis market and have not reduced the access to children,” McCann said. “And they have made getting jobs, housing and education more difficult for Virginians … A conviction for a drug charge or an arrest can cause far more harm than the use of cannabis itself.”

“Don’t use cannabis. It’s an adult activity like alcohol and sex.”

Each year, McCann said, Virginia arrests about 20,000 citizens – including 2,000 minors – for possessing marijuana. McCann said Virginia should send children this message: “Don’t use cannabis. It’s an adult activity like alcohol and sex. Your brains are developing, and cannabis can possibly affect it. Don’t think that if something is legal for adults, then it is OK for you to use.

The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP endorsed SB 686 on grounds that African Americans are arrested on marijuana charges more often than whites. In a press release, NAACP leader Shirley Ginwright thanked Ebbin “for recognizing and addressing the disproportionate arrest rates and the economic impact marijuana arrests and incarceration has had on the communities.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia cited similar reasons for its support of SB 686. Frank Knaack, director of public policy and communication for the Virginia ACLU, said marijuana laws have a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the commonwealth. In Virginia, African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, according to a 2010 national study by the ACLU. But African Americans are 2.8 times more likely than white to get arrested for marijuana possession.

“In Fairfax, Chesterfield and Loudon counties, they are three times more likely to get arrested,” Knaack said. “And in Arlington County, they’re 7.8 times more likely to get arrested for doing the same thing. “So from our prospective, the racial disparity issue is extremely important, and it’s something that we hope this bill will start to address.”

People convicted of marijuana possession face having a criminal record the rest of their lives – which can hurt career prospects and their overall future. In Virginia, a second conviction for possessing less than half an ounce of cannabis can draw a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, and the defendant may lose his or her driver’s license.

“The bottom line is, small possession of marijuana shouldn’t interrupt your life,” Ebbin said. “We don’t arrest people for possessing a six pack of beer.”

Photo by: alittlefishy

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