Virginia: Big Increase In Marijuana Possession Arrests, Especially In Black Communities
Virginia Moving in Wrong Direction as U.S. States and Congress Reform Marijuana Laws
Black Virginians Arrested for Marijuana Possession at 3.3 Times the Rate of White Virginians, Despite Equal Rates of Marijuana Use
Report Released as Thousands Prepare to Gather Next Month in Arlington for World’s Largest Drug Policy Reform Conference
A new report has found that marijuana possession arrests in Virginia have increased dramatically over the last 10 years, especially in black communities. The report was authored by Shenandoah University professor and researcher Jon Gettman and released on Wednesday by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
“As states around the country pass reforms to scale back the role of criminalization in marijuana policy, Virginia appears to be moving in the wrong direction,” said Lindsey Lawson Battaglia, policy manager with the DPA and former Virginia criminal defense attorney. “This troubling report should encourage Virginia lawmakers to fix the Commonwealth's broken marijuana policies.”
Using data compiled from the Uniform Crime (UCR) Program and the Virginia State Police, the report found that marijuana possession arrests in Virginia consistently increased from 2003 to 2013, as did the racial disparity in arrest rates. Federal government data consistently shows that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.
Adding insult to injury, Virginia’s massive number of marijuana arrests usurp scarce law enforcement, criminal justice and treatment resources at enormous cost to taxpayers.
Earlier this year, Virginia State Senator Adam Ebbin introduced a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana in Virginia, which received support from the Fairfax County NAACP and the ACLU of Virginia.
"The racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Virginia is deeply troubling, and the barriers that a criminal record brings are particularly worrisome. Studies show marijuana use does not vary significantly between whites and blacks, yet African-Americans are over three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses," said Senator Ebbin.
The report’s key findings include:
• In 2013, the ratio of marijuana possession arrests of black residents compared to white residents was 3.3 to 1. This is an increase from 2003, when it was 2.4 to 1.
• From 2003 to 2013 marijuana possession arrests in Virginia increased 57% from 13,032 to 22,948. In the three years from 2011 to 2013, marijuana possession arrests increased by 1,987, with black Virginians accounting for 82% (or 1,627) of this increase.
• During the 11-year period from 2003 to 2013, arrests of black people in Virginia for marijuana possession more than doubled from 4,991 to 10,293 – a 106% increase. By comparison, arrests of white people increased by 44% during this period.
• In 2013, over half (54%) of the state’s marijuana possession arrests took place in the counties of Fairfax, Chesterfield and Prince William; and the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, Roanoke and Lynchburg. Some of the largest increases in arrests over the most recent three years (2011 to 2013) occurred in Rockbridge (188%), Bedford (166%), Franklin (140%), Manassas City (132%), Emporia City (83%), Arlington (81%), Botetourt (62%), Wythe (57%), and Norfolk City (49%). Also of note are increases in Danville (31%), Chesapeake (30%), Richmond City (30%) and Virginia Beach City (13%).
• These trends contradict the original intent of Virginia’s state legislature in enacting the Commonwealth’s current marijuana possession law back in 1979. At that time, the legislature intended to reinvest scarce resources wasted on marijuana possession arrests to more important priorities such as large scale drug trafficking.
Penalties for marijuana possession under Virginia law are no small matter and can haunt a person for the rest of their life. A marijuana arrest creates a permanent criminal record, easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing and other government agencies.
A person convicted of a marijuana law violation in Virginia can be punished by up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $500. A second or subsequent offense is the Class 1 misdemeanor which is up to 12 months and/or up to a $2500 fine. For noncitizens, a marijuana arrest can trigger deportation, sometimes with almost no possibility of discretionary relief.
Twenty states have enacted various forms of marijuana decriminalization by reducing or eliminating penalties for minor marijuana offenses. Four states have taken the additional step of legally regulating the sale, cultivation and distribution of marijuana for adults over 21. Additionally, 23 states and D.C. have passed reforms to legalize medical marijuana.
In Virginia and nationally, public support for making marijuana legal has shifted dramatically in the last two decades, with recent polls showing greater than majority support. More than two-thirds believe those caught with marijuana should be fined or not punished at all.
A Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll released in April 2015 found that a majority of Virginia voters support legalizing marijuana for adults, and a super-majority support allowing medical marijuana in the state. Virginia voters strongly support allowing the medical use of marijuana, with 86 percent in favor and only 11 percent opposed. Support for legalizing recreational marijuana for adults was 54 percent, with just 41 percent opposed.
“These antiquated and extremely punitive laws, seemingly in a very targeted fashion, have served to devastate scores of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches and houses of faith in too many of Virginia’s communities," said Jesse Frierson, executive director of the Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration.
The Drug Policy Alliance is hosting the International Drug Policy Reform Conference at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel on November 18-21 in Arlington, Virginia. This conference brings together thousands of drug policy experts, health care and drug treatment professionals, elected officials, law enforcement, students, and formerly incarcerated people from around the United States and around the world who are working to end the War On Drugs.
Advocates from across the state of Virginia will convene a meeting at this conference to prepare for Virginia’s next legislative session in 2016.
The entire report can be read at: www.drugpolicy.org/VAmjarrests .
Graphic: The Daily Chronic