Although marijuana decriminalization is not a subject that has gained much traction with the Virginia General Assembly over the past few years, the situation could change now that the gatekeeper of the State Senate has come out in support of eliminating the criminal penalties associated with small time marijuana possession.
On Tuesday, during a Norfolk City Council dinner, Virginia Senate majority leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, who has voted against decriminalization measures in the past, revealed that he was willing to consider a new policy in terms of those people caught holding a little weed.
“It is crazy, we lock up people in the state for modest amounts of marijuana,” Norment said. “I think the issue can adequately be addressed with civil penalties rather than criminal ones. For example, if you are caught with a modest amount of marijuana, you could be ordered into drug rehabilitation, restricting a driver’s license. If you are caught again in a certain period of time, then maybe it could be a criminal matter.”
Norment followed up his comments by suggesting that the Virginia State Crime Commission, which makes legislative recommendations, should conduct a study on decriminalization in 2017. He said it would take some concrete evidence to get some of his conservative colleagues onboard with making changes to the current law.
Last year, the Senate Committee for the Virginia Courts of Justice voted against a measure aimed at decriminalizing marijuana possession. The bill (Senate Bill 686) would have done way with the criminal penalties for the possession of up to an ounce of weed and allowed the offense to be treated as a civil matter—punishable with a $100 fine, no jail time and no criminal record.
Incidentally, Senator Tommy Norment was one of the nine Republicans who voted “no” on the bill, while all of the support on the issue came from the Democrats.
As it stands, Virginia’s pot penalties are considered some of the most vicious in the nation—putting the 20,000 people arrested in the state for this offense every year in a position of being slapped with a criminal misdemeanor—punishable with up to a month in jail and a $500 fine.
Unfortunately, it might not be a simple task getting the Crime Commission to get to work on a marijuana decriminalization study. That’s because research of this kind would first need to be approved by the full Assembly, and there is still plenty of Republican opposition taking up seats in both Houses that could prevent any action from being taken.
Norment told the Virginian Pilot that it was his discussions with the younger generation (millennials) that prompted his change of heart on this issue. He said that while Virginia wants to be tough on crime, “it’s a question of what crimes we want to be tough on.”
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