Is Marijuana Decriminalization Coming to Norfolk?
In preparation for the Virginia Municipal League (VML) Conference, which occurs from Oct. 9-11, Norfolk City Council addressed issues they would like to place in their legislative package to be sent to Richmond. This package includes the issues they wish legislators in the General Assembly would consider during their session. According to their website, the VML is a body consisting of civic leaders from 38 cities, 160 counties and eight towns across Virginia. A topic brought up for consideration in the Aug. 23 meeting of Norfolk City Council was the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.
Councilman Paul Riddick brought up this topic to be considered for the Norfolk legislative package because he believes it’s time the Virginia General Assembly addresses policies which have been in place since the ’70s.
According to a 2015 study conducted at Shenandoah University by Dr. Jon Gettman, while the national average for simple marijuana possession arrests declined over an 11 year period by 6.5%, this rate increased in Virginia by 76%. What is more appalling is comparing arrest rates of African Americans to those of their white cohorts. Although use by African-Americans in Virginia is slightly higher than Caucasians (11.3% to 9.1% respectively), arrest rates in 2013 were 233% greater for blacks when compared with whites regarding simple marijuana possession. In Norfolk alone, an African-American is five times more likely to be arrested for this minor infraction.
Councilman Riddick believes decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana could free up city resources as well as pave the way for Virginia to catch up with the 21 other states which have either decriminalized marijuana, or are waiting for decriminalization to take affect. This is currently a discussion and can only be considered by the Virginia General Assembly, at the earliest during their 2017 legislative session beginning in January. In Virginia, all legislative power rests within the hands of the General Assembly, and cities cannot implement their own laws overriding state laws. Where a difference could possibly be made is through the enforcement of those laws. City council could request the police cease arresting people for simple marijuana possession as well as stop the prosecution by the Commonwealth’s Attorney for these types of arrests. This would then place simple marijuana possession at the lowest possible level of enforcement by the city police, allowing them to focus on other issues that may affect society in a more negative way.
This topic is important to students because of the implications it can have upon their future. With even a low level drug offense, federal financial aid will be forfeited, possibly causing a student to be unable to afford a higher education. A conviction can also scar job applications as well as create a financial burden upon a young adult. Virginia statute also requires the forfeiture of your driver’s license (even if no vehicle was involved in the arrest) for a simple possession charge. These are burdens which further disenfranchise younger generations.
As Norfolk prepares their dialogue for the VML conference, one can only imagine how the reception of marijuana decriminalization will be received. With an overwhelming majority of support on the topic in Hampton Roads (77% according to a Wason Center Poll at Christopher Newport University in Jan. 2015), is it time for progress on this conversation?