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Virginia: Lawmakers Quash Decriminalization Effort

By a margin of nearly 3 to 1, voters in the Old Dominion state say that they support amending Virginia’s marijuana penalties—penalties that rank among the toughest in the nation. Yet, on Wednesday, members of the Senate Committee for the Virginia Courts of Justice voted by a margin of 2 to 1 to reject legislation that sought to do just that.

Welcome to pot politics in Virginia.

Each year, Virginia police make some 20,000 arrests for marijuana possession—an annual total that is the twelfth highest in the nation. Those arrested are charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a criminal record, and a 500-dollar fine.

State activists hoped that 2015 would be the year that lawmakers moved to end this practice. In December, Democrat Sen. Adam Ebbins filed legislation, Senate Bill 686, to reclassify minor marijuana possession offenses as a civil matter, punishable by no more than a 100-dollar fine—no arrest, no incarceration, and no threat of a lifelong criminal record.

On Tuesday of this week, the results of a just-published Christopher Newport University survey reported that 71 percent of registered Virginians supported this policy change. Only 26 percent of respondents endorsed maintaining the status quo.

Nonetheless, less than 24 hours following the poll’s release, members of the Senate Courts Committee decided to reject SB 686 by a vote of 9 to 5, with all nine Republicans on the Committee voting ‘no.’ (All five ‘yes’ votes were from Democrats.) Members took the vote after allowing the bill’s proponents only five minutes to publicly make their case.

The refusal of Virginia Republicans to seriously consider the measure came as a disappointment to statewide advocates, particularly members of Virginia NORML, who had spent the weeks prior to the Committee hearing generating some 3,500 letters to members in support of the bill, organizing press conferences and a lobby day in Richmond, and even erecting a billboard promoting SB 686 that was displayed for weeks just outside of the state capitol.

Yet, Virginia activists are far from throwing in the towel. “This vote, far from signaling defeat, is a sign of progress in the Commonwealth,” said Erik Altieri, national NORML Communications Director and a Board Member of Virginia NORML. “Senate Bill 686 was historic because it was the first time the issue of decriminalization has ever been debated in the state Senate. It won the unanimous support of the Committee’s Democrats. We will build off of our efforts this year and return in 2016, wiser and stronger than ever, with the support of over 70 percent of Virginia voters at our backs.”

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