In the view of Del. Danny Marshall, R- Danville, marijuana is a drug just like alcohol, which is why he supports the decriminalization of marijuana proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam.
“This is a step that’s comfortable for me at this particular point,” he said of voting in favor of the proposal.
On Friday morning, Northam unveiled his new criminal justice reform agenda for the 2020 General Assembly. The new initiative focused on parole reform, permanent elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees, court costs and decriminalization of simple marijuana possession.
If decriminalization is passed, those charged with simple possession will receive a $50 civil fine instead of potential jail time. The proposal also will clear the records of those who previously have been convicted of simple possession.
Marshall explained he supports decriminalization because he knows people who have been harmed by current marijuana laws.
“I know of people that have been harmed by this [current marijuana laws],” he said. “It’s a pretty tough problem in our area.”
Marshall is not the only politician who voiced support for the governor’s call for marijuana decriminalization. Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones agrees Virginia should fall in line with other states that have followed similar measures.
“What the governor is proposing has merit, especially since lots of states are legalizing recreational marijuana,” he wrote in a text.
Jones went on to note that simple possession charges negatively affect young people.
“[It] makes it hard to get jobs due to the charge being on their record for years,” he texted.
Del. Les Adams, R- Chatham, expressed caution over the proposal, however.
“I am wary of the notion that Virginia’s criminal justice system needs a complete overhaul, especially considering that the Commonwealth enjoys low crime and recidivism rates compared to other states,” he wrote in an email. “I will also be interested in hearing from our local law enforcement officials to hear their perspective on these bills.”
Members of Danville’s criminal justice community had differing opinions on Northam’s decriminalization.
Jason Eisner, a Danville defense attorney, called drug decriminalization “a step in the right direction.”
Simple possession charges, he explained, places a tremendous burden on people, resulting in criminal records, probation and a loss of driving privileges.
“It’s the type of business I won’t get anymore, but it’s for the good of society” he said.
Maj. Timothy Jones, of the Danville Police Department, expressed neutrality on the issue. The department, he said, is merely tasked with enforcing the law.
“Whatever laws are enacted we will enforce them,” he said. “Whatever legislation passed, our job is to make the community safe.”
Danville Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Newman focused on the potential legal challenges marijuana decriminalization would impose.
“The interesting question is the effect decriminalization would have on probable cause to search,” he said. “With it being decriminalized, but not totally legalized, would an officer still have probable cause to search for something that is now only a civil fine?”
He went on to note possession of marijuana still is a federal offense.
“To be sure, for better or for worse, decriminalization will have an impact on how law enforcement officers do their jobs,” he said.
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.