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January 14, 2020

Today, the ACLU of Virginia, Marijuana Justice, and many other partners sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam opposing his current proposals on marijuana decriminalization. We raised serious concerns that his proposals would create a new enforcement mechanism ripe for abuse without stopping the harm done to the communities most affected by the War on Drugs. Instead of moving forward with a misguided decriminalization effort, we urge the governor to repeal the prohibiton on marijuana completely and make it legal for adults to possess and use this common, non-dangerous drug without any civil or criminal penalties. Virginia can and should repeal prohibition now to eliminate a racist policing tool and bring racial justice to this issue.

Last year, 29,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possesion, up three times from the previous decade. Black people in Virginia are 3.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested, despite similar usage rates. These interactions targeting Black people can lead to other unrelated charges, expose them to the criminal legal system, and drive up racial disparities in our prisons and jails. Simple marijuana possession is the fourth-highest reason for deportation and is often used as a tool for immigration enforcement that does not make our communities safer. For immigrants, including those who have documentation, even a misdemeanor or civil penalty can trigger harmful consequences. Repealing the prohibition on marijuana is a racial justice issue. As a coalition, we cannot support any effort at marijuana reform that does not address racial inequalities in the system and stop the harm to Black communities and communities of color.

"Decriminalizing marijuana (i.e., simply substituting a civil penalty for a criminal sanction) does nothing to end racist pretextual stops by police, and continuing to allow law enforcement to use marijuana laws for this purpose, coupled with expanded 'prosecutorial authority' for city and county attorneys, likely will result in even greater racial disparities in enforcement than we have with existing laws," stated the letter. "The only way to stop the harm is to remove the prohibition on marijuana possession and use from the code completely, making it legal for adults to possess and use marijuana now and eliminating this racist policing tool."

The letter further explained why House Bill 972, introduced by Del. Charniele Herring on the governor's behalf, and Senate Bill 2, introduced by Del. Adam Ebbin, are not a positive step toward racial equity or legal marijuana. Here are our concerns:

  • HB 972 and SB 2, as introduced, set up a new enforcement mechanism ripe for abuse;
  • HB 972 and SB 2 do not eliminate penalties or incentives for disparate enforcement;
  • HB 972 and SB 2 set up a system in which people who can afford fines and fees can pay their tickets, but people with low income who can't pay upfront and those who want to contest their citation have to go to court without the benefit of a court-appointed lawyer or the constitutional protections that apply in any criminal trial;
  • HB 972 creates a whole new crime for "smoking while driving," of which proposed penalities far exceed driving with an open container of alcohol. A first offense would result in a fine of up to $500 and 30 days in jail and a second offense is a class 1 misdemeanor which could result in a year in jail;
  • HB 972 and SB 2 would hurt young people because it defines the civil violation of marijuana possesion as a "delinquency," which is a crime for juveniles, and push children of color into the juvenile criminal legal system for a civil infraction. Young people would also have their driver's licenses revoked for six months and have to undergo drug screening.

We believe that Virginia lawmakers should not delay taking action to end the prohibition on simple possession and bring some racial justice to our system now by taking away from law enforcement a tool it has wielded disproportionately against Black Virginians. We urge the governor and Del. Herring to withdraw HB 972 and instead support HB 1507, introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, which would accomplish this important goal by simply repealing marijuana prohibition.

We and our coalition partners agree that study is needed before Virginia can consider or implement an equitable system to regulate the legal sale of marijuana. "We also agree, however, that the simple repeal of the prohibition on possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana is the right first step in that direction," stated the letter. "We can and must reform marijuana laws in a way that focuses on the communities harmed most by the war on drugs. Repeal of the marijuana prohibition would do that."

Co-signatories of the letter include:

  • Marijuana Justice
  • RISE for Youth
  • The Humanization Project
  • Justice Forward Virginia
  • Virginia Justice Democrats 
  • ACLU People Power Fairfax
  • Emgage USA (Empowering Engaged Muslim Americans)
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Union
  • CASA De Virginia
  • RIHD 
  • Fairfax NAACP 
  • Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy
  • Del. Joshua Cole