After saying he was open to decriminalization of marijuana, the state GOP’s powerful Senate leader disappointed reform advocates by filing a bill that stops short.
Senate Bill 954, filed by Tommy Norment, R-James City, would prevent an individual convicted of first-offense possession of marijuana from serving jail time, and would allow only for a fine and chance for expungement.
But Norment has previously said he was in favor of decriminalization — eliminating the criminal misdemeanor charge altogether and making possession of marijuana a civil offense.
Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for Norment, said he opted not to file a decriminalization measure because it would have no chance of passage.
“Legislative change is about the possible. And Senator Norment believes his bill is what is possible to win approval in the courts of justice committees in both chambers, and to pass both chambers,” Ryer said. “We don’t know for certain that even Senator Norment’s measure will prove to be successful. But we do believe that it has the best prospects of the proposals out there of being advanced.”
The bill disappointed advocates for marijuana reform, who cite statistics showing criminal enforcement of the plant is disproportionately heavy-handed on African-Americans.
“Senator Norment could have been a catalyst for change,” said Cindy Cutler of Norfolk, who is pushing for decriminalization.
She said she was disappointed that after expressing support for decriminalization, Norment didn’t even want to try.
“Let’s try — let’s see what’s going to happen with the pressure from citizens. We need to move this forward,” she said.
A poll in 2016 found 8 in 10 Virginians supported changing the penalty for marijuana possession from a criminal misdemeanor to a $100 civil penalty, and 62 percent supported legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.
“I certainly think this is a disappointment to a large number of Virginians and certainly Senator Norment’s constituents who thought that he would be the common-sense voice to advance this measure that has been stalling in the Virginia General Assembly for years now,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the marijuana reform group Virginia NORML.
Bill Farrar, director of public policy and communication for the ACLU of Virginia, said he and ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga attended Norment’s legislative breakfast in Williamsburg before the session. Although Norment called his bill a decriminalization bill at the breakfast, what he described at the breakfast was not, Farrar said.
“The ACLU of Virginia supports full legalization of marijuana and will not settle for anything less than decriminalization moving forward. Senator Norment’s bill is an expungement measure not sharing a freckle in common with decriminalization,” Farrar said by email. “This is an urgent criminal justice and racial justice issue in Virginia that lawmakers should be taking more seriously.
“The commonwealth spends nearly three quarters of a billion dollars each year enforcing a law that dramatically and disparately entangles people of color in the criminal justice system, while neglecting to fund programs to help people with mental illness or directly address the growing opioid problem.”
The ACLU supports Senate Bill 111 from Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, which would shift the punishment for marijuana possession from a crime to a civil fine. Last year, Ebbin’s bill was set aside in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee because the Virginia State Crime Commission planned to study the issue.
Law enforcement groups, including the Virginia State Police, want to continue enforcing marijuana possession as a crime.
Norment’s bill would require the state police to maintain a database of people whose marijuana possession charges had been expunged. Expungement fees would then go into a fund to help fight heroin and prescription opioid addiction.
Creation of the database would cost $187,132.
Although it appears to be a long shot, should the GOP-controlled legislature send a marijuana decriminalization bill to the desk of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, the bill would have a strong chance for a signature.
Northam called for decriminalization last year, saying criminal enforcement of marijuana possession is expensive and disproportionately jails African-Americans.