State Watch

Virginia AG: Policy of criminalizing minor marijuana possession 'is not working'

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) called for the decriminalization of minor marijuana possession in a column Saturday for the Daily Press.

Virginia's policy of criminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug "is not working," Herring wrote, noting overall marijuana possession arrests are up about 115 percent from 2003, with first-time convictions increasing from 6,500 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2017.

About one in three of those convicted of a first-offense are actually sent to jail, Herring noted, but even those who avoid jail time are often left with a criminal record and risk losing their job, student aid, public benefits or custody rights.

"This punitive approach costs Virginia taxpayers an estimated $81 million every year, in addition to the staggering human and social costs," Herring wrote. "And it cannot be ignored that the burden of the current system falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color."

Specifically, he noted, the Virginia Crime Commission found that African Americans, despite making up 20 percent of Virginia's population and research indicating they have roughly the same marijuana usage rates as white Americans, comprised 46 percent of first-offense marijuana possession arrests from 2007 to 2016.

Herring lauded "sensible and courageous steps" by individual commonwealth's attorneys to cut the number of simple possession cases they prosecute, but said to truly address the issue requires a standardized Virginia-wide policy.

"That process should begin as soon as possible with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of marijuana and taking action to release from jail, pardon and expunge the records of those whose convictions would not have occurred under more rational standards," Herring wrote.

He added, "This would provide a measure of justice for Virginians who have been hampered by these convictions, while also freeing up important law enforcement resources and increasing trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve."

Outbrain