Today, the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission to express its support of marijuana decriminalization in the state. The letter listed four primary reasons why the time is ripe for Virginia to remove criminal penalties from Virginia’s marijuana statute:
- Casual marijuana use does not pose a public health risk, as recent studies have shown it is not the gateway drug to addiction it once was suspected of being. According to the National Institute of Health, while marijuana is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances, “the majority of people who use it do not go on to use other, ‘harder,’ substances.” Yet, according to the ACLU study, “Marijuana in Black and White,” marijuana possession accounted for 53.8 percent of all drug offenses in 2010.
- Current penalties for simple marijuana possession are excessive and contribute to over-incarceration. First-offense simple possession is a misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. This results in thousands of people each year needlessly being introduced to the criminal justice system for an activity that has been decriminalized in 13 states and is fully legal in nine others.
- The cost of enforcing laws against simple marijuana possession are outrageous, bordering on fiscal irresponsibility. According to the ACLU report, Virginia spent more than $67 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. One can only assume those costs have continued to rise at a time when there are dire needs to fund other programs, including those to divert people with mental illness away from incarceration and towards treatment.
- Enforcement of marijuana laws has a drastic, disparate effect on people of color. Again, according to the ACLU report, African-Americans in 2010 were nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites even though usage rates are roughly the same. In some localities, the arrest ratio is nearly eight to one of African-Americans to whites.
The ACLU of Virginia urged the Crime Commission to stop criminalizing this common, non-dangerous activity and follow in the footsteps of other states that have legalized medical marijuana, decriminalized marijuana possession, and even legalized personal use.