Virginia made history last week when the state Senate approved a bill that would stop police officers from pulling over and searching vehicles simply because they smell of cannabis. The bill is meant to help stop racial profiling against people of color.
This is a big deal because Black folks are more than three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis, according to the ACLU and the data that has been gathered on cannabis use. In general, stop-and-search because of a cannabis smell is likely to involve stereotyping and impact minority groups negatively.
“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the nonprofit Marijuana Justice, regarding the possibility of passing this new bill. “The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families.”
Cannabis Crime in Virginia
While cannabis decriminalization took effect in Virginia this past July, possession of more than an ounce can still result in a serious penalty, and having up to an ounce still results in a $25 fine. Thus, the negative impact tied to policing people of color is still there under this current system.
“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said regarding the change this bill could make.
However, Virginia police are officially opposing this bill.
“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” said Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Dana Schrad.
While the police claim this would negatively impact their jobs, many are ready to see this change happen. Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Virginia, claims that the police have “gotten comfortable” using the smell of cannabis as an excuse to search.
“Occasionally, they’ll find evidence doing that of some other criminal activity, but many times they don’t,” she said. “As a consequence, it provides an excuse for essentially over-policing people who have done nothing wrong.” She also claimed that the overcriminalization of Black and brown people will continue until a change is made.
In order for this bill to officially pass and be considered by the governor, it needs approval from the House of Delegates. Then, it can head to the desk of Governor Ralph Northam in order to become law. If it does become law, it will go into effect four months after the special session being held now.
If this bill passes, it will mean even more freedom and peace of mind for those who feel that their identity rather than their cannabis use is being policed. However, many feel there will not be full change and reform until cannabis is federally legal.