VA: First Offender Break for Marijuana Gains Traction

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Virginia lawmakers are leaning toward giving people charged with a first offense of marijuana possession a break, but they’ve balked at going any further toward decriminalizing pot.

The first offender break, proposed by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment, Jr., R-James City County, would require a “deferred disposition” process for first offenders.

It sailed through the Senate Courts of Justice Committee days after a House panel killed a proposal to say marijuana possession would no longer be a crime, simply a civil offense subject to a fine.

The deferred disposition Norment proposed is the little-known way that people convicted of minor offenses can have the charge dismissed if they meet specific conditions, rather like probation.

Norment’s proposal would also allow people whose first-ever marijuana possession charges are dismissed after going through that deferred disposition process to have the arrest expunged from police and court records. His bill would make the Virginia State Police keep a separate database of those deferred disposition decisions, to ensure that people only get the first-offender break once.

“This is not decriminalization,” Norment told the committee, adding that a House Courts of Justice subcommittee’s 7-1 rejection of decriminalization last week made clear that any move in that direction in the state Senate would die if it reached the House.

And a few minutes after the Senate panel approved Norment’s proposal, it killed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, that would have made simple possession of marijuana a civil offense, subject to a $50 fine for a first offense, $100 for a second violation and $250 for any more.

State law now says simple possession is subject to a fine of up to $500 and 30 days in jail.

Norment said his bill, by directing fines to a new opioids education fund, could generate roughly $17 million a year for drug-abuse prevention efforts, noting that some 69,000 people a year are arrested for a first offense of simple possession.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, argued for Ebbin’s bill, saying Norment’s only offered the illusion of progress.

Although blacks and whites are equally likely to use marijuana, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested, raising concerns about biased policing, she said.

By keeping marijuana possession on the books as a criminal offense, the legislature makes it to too easy for police officers to stop and frisk people for dubious reasons, she said.

David L. Ledbetter, commonwealth’s attorney for Waynesboro, said the state prosecutors’ association supported Norment’s approach, despite its reservations about the expungement provision.

But the body strongly opposes decriminalization, he said.

“This would be a step back in 45 years of progress on highway safety,” he said.