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March 27, 2020

Today, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to the Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam urging him to amend current marijuana decriminalization, House Bill 972 and Senate Bill 2, to help stop the harm of the War on Drugs on communities of color. 

The letter highlighted that HB 972 and SB 2 would not stop law enforcement officers from using "I smell marijuana" as a pretext to target and harass communities of color at disproportionate rates. They also do nothing to stop the harm of the War on Drugs on the people who are most impacted.

"As many Virginians’ voiced during this session, the “smell of marijuana” is routinely used as a justification for traffic stops and “stop-and-frisk” activities that disproportionately impact Black and Brown people and communities of color," stated the letter. "These interactions can lead to unrelated charges for which there otherwise would be no probable cause or to undue use of force. Especially given the current health crisis and the heightened risk of serious harm to people from COVID-19, downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be part of Virginia’s COVID-19 public health response and part of the way that Virginia looks at its criminal legal system. Virginia should address racially-biased  marijuana enforcement and change laws that unnecessarily and unjustifiably lead to more people interacting with the criminal legal system."

The ACLU of Virginia called on Gov. Northam to amend HB 972 and SB 2 to repeal the prohibition on simple marijuana possession to help take away a racist policing tool and set the stage for more equitable marijuana reform. Even if the governor chooses not to amend the bills to truly decriminalize marijuana, the ACLU of Virginia requested that he at least recommend amendments to ensure that the legislation would not: recommend amendments to ensure that the legislation would not:

  • Continue to give police officers and Commonwealth's attorneys the discretion to arrest and charge people with a felony for simple marijuana possession under an ounce by arguing that the person had an intent to distribute (which could include giving a joint to a friend).
  • Criminalize our youth, take away their driver's licenses for non-related driving offenses, and require drug screening by defining possession of an ounce or less of marijuana by a juvenile as a criminal act – a "delinquency."
  • Leave out communities directly impacted by marijuana criminalization from the workgroup tasked to address 2021 marijuana legislation.

"The fact is marijuana laws overwhelmingly target people in Black and Brown communities," stated the letter. "The legislation you’ve been asked to sign will only contribute to that inequality. The war on drugs has always been a war on people, particularly on people of color and experts point to policing practices and the racial history behind marijuana prohibition as leading to arrest disparities. Virginia must address and eliminate discriminatory police practices."

You can read the full letter in the attachment below.