Marijuana Arrests in Virginia Skyrocket, Especially in Black Communities

The Commonwealth of Virginia is rich in history, home to beautiful beaches, rich mountain ranges, and some of the most regressive drug policies in the entire United States, according to a new report authored by Shenandoah University professor and researcher Jon Gettman and published by the Drug Policy Alliance.

In a decade that has seen 23 states legalize medical marijuana, four introduce the legally regulated sale and distribution of marijuana for recreational purposes, and another 20 reduce or in some cases eliminate penalties for minor offenses, arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in Virginia, especially—and disproportionally—in black communities, where residents are arrested at 3.3 times the rate of their white counterparts, despite white and black Virginians using marijuana in equal measure.

Lindsey Lawson Battaglia, former Virginia criminal defense attorney and current policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance, calls the Commonwealth’s marijuana policies “broken” and says, “As states around the country pass reforms to scale back the role of criminalization in marijuana policy, Virginia appears to be moving in the wrong direction.”

The report, which drew data from the Uniform Crime Program and Virginia State Police, focused on the span between 2003 and 2013 and showed a consistent increase in both arrests and racial disparity. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “Federal government data consistently shows that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.”

In 2003, there were 13,032 arrests for marijuana possession in Virginia; by 2013, that number increased 76 percent to 22,948. Between 2011 and 2013, 1,627 of 1,987 people arrested for possessing marijuana in Virginia were black. Overall, between 2003 and 2013 arrests of black Virginians rose 106 percent, while arrests of white Virginians only increased 44 percent.

This year, State Senator Adam Ebbin received support from the Virginia NAACP and ACLU by introducing a bill that would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana in Virginia. According to Ebbin, “The racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Virginia is deeply troubling, and the barriers that a criminal record brings are particularly worrisome.”

The penalties for marijuana possession in Virginia range from up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense to a Class 1 misdemeanor charge for subsequent arrests, which means up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

A majority of Virginia voters actually support legalizing marijuana, according to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University earlier in 2015. The poll also shows that “Virginia voters strongly support allowing the medical use of marijuana, with 86 percent in favor and only 11 percent opposed. Support for legalizing recreational marijuana for adults was 54 percent, with just 41 percent opposed.”

From the Drug Policy Alliance report: “…why has the number of arrests of black Virginians for marijuana possession continued to skyrocket? Has enforcement of the Commonwealth’s marijuana laws, regardless of their intent, simply become a pretext for arresting more of its black residents?

“Whatever the intent or explanation behind these trends, the costs and consequences are clear. The racial disparities in the application of Virginia’s marijuana laws are unacceptable and fundamentally question the integrity and fairness of its criminal justice system.”

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