By Daniel Rondeau, Virginia NORML Communications Director
Recently, the Virginia State Crime Commission agreed to undertake a study on decriminalization. From a perspective well-represented in comments on Facebook, decriminalization has been implemented around the country for nearly two decades. And, with the nationwide trend toward regulating both adult and medical use, why does Virginia still need a study? Why won’t Virginia lawmakers just move forward with the seemingly obvious solution of decriminalization? The answer lies in legislative procedure.
In a trial court the finder of fact, either judge or jury, must “find” the facts of a case from the mountain of evidence presented. Although legislatures are not the same as a court of law, there are similarities in the way that they recognize facts, even when it appears everyone knows that facts as obvious.
Legislative Findings fuel Political Progress
Legislatures undertake studies to form official reports. Government researchers, staffed by non-partisan analysts, will comb through mounds of data from Virginia’s current criminal prohibition of marijuana and the statistical data from decriminalized states. The primary purpose of the study is how to amend Virginia Code without losing federal funding. Analysts will also consider any collateral impacts from decriminalization policies experienced in other states. (The effects of the proposed policy changes have been positive for decriminalized communities.) Lawmakers can finally make progress on decriminalization bills with firm political footing, armed with the Crime Commission study’s findings.
There are still legislators in Virginia who remain opposed to and unconvinced of the need for criminal justice reform regarding marijuana. They supported a limited affirmative defense bill for intractable epilepsy because they were emotionally moved by the impact of cannabis on those patients and did not agree with the criminalization of those children or their families. They have yet to be moved by the collateral damages of Virginia’s outdated, overly punitive marijuana policy on anyone else. The impact of these consequences to Virginians will finally be considered by traditional reform opponents when supported with a state-issued report.
Armed with Facts, Ready to Legislate
There are many Virginia lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support and are ready to move forward with decriminalization. This study is a key procedural requirement. The Crime Commission will receive an official report from non-partisan government analysts on the outlined points which can then be used officially to support decriminalization legislation introduced in the 2018 General Assembly.
The results of the study will simply highlight that Virginian communities will not collapse into a dysfunctional mess following decriminalization, a lesson already apparent from the 21 other American jurisdictions that have decriminalized adult marijuana possession. Virginia’s criminal prohibition of marijuana creates significant barriers between the convicted and their achievement of the common goal to become a contributing citizen of the Commonwealth.