Marijuana Decriminalized July 1 in Virginia

Will decriminalization of marijuana stop inequitable treatment for communities of color?

Who is more likely to be charged, asked Braddock Supervisor James Walkinshaw. An executive of a defense contractor smoking marijuana on his deck overlooking woods in Clifton or Great Falls, or the Black teen or young adult walking down Route One in Mount Vernon, or on a street in the Annandale or Culmore sections of Fairfax County?

“Correct me, if I’m wrong, but I think the math that you read last time basically said that 30 to 40 percent of the annual marijuana arrests in the county are of African Americans over the last several years. To note for everyone, the African American population in Fairfax is about 10 percent,” Walksinshaw said to Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. during Legislative Committee meetings of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors earlier this year.

Fairfax County Police arrested 3,070 people last year for possession of marijuana. Black people were arrested 1,266 times and white people were arrested 1,713 times. In 2018, Fairfax County Police made 4,298 arrests for marijuana possession. Black people were arrested 1,624 times; white people were arrested 2,466 times.

But Black people make up less than 10 percent of the population.

“We’ve peeled back those numbers and it is disproportional,” said Roessler. “When you pull it back and you start looking at the zip codes of where people are coming from and the demographics of the county, it’s disproportionate across the board, any which way we slice it.

“African American males and Hispanics are disproportionately charged, any way you look at it,” Roessler said.

“We know Black and white people are using marijuana at the same rates,” Walkinshaw said. “There’s no reason to believe it’s any different here in Fairfax.”

ON JULY 1, VIRGINIA JOINS 26 states and Washington, D.C. in ceasing to jail people for possessing small amounts of cannabis. Gov. Ralph Northam signed SB 2 into law in May.

Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will be punishable by a civil fine of up to $25 instead of a criminal charge that could mean up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. The bill prohibits employers from requiring applicants to disclose marijuana possession charges.

The General Assembly tabled bills on legalizing marijuana possession, and workgroups will conduct one- and two-year studies that include inequitable treatment of Black people.

But, in the meantime, will Black people continue to be charged disproportionately even though it’s now a civil penalty rather than a criminal charge?

“The scenario I described would also apply to decriminalization. The executive on the back porch in Clifton is not going to be found and fined for possession of marijuana,” said Walkinshaw. “We may reduce some of the equity issues and the harm that is done, but it doesn’t eliminate it. So that is another challenge that we will continue to deal with.”

Walkinshaw wants the Chief of Police to report data at least two times a year to the Board rather than annually so there is the ability to make adjustments throughout the year.

“THERE IS, related to our country’s history of the War on Drugs, a disproportional pattern of enforcement,” said Karla Bruce, Chief Equity Officer for Fairfax County.

“Specifically, there was a disproportionate harmful impact on communities of color, specifically African Americans and Latinos,” said Bruce. “When you have a criminal record, you definitely risk your economic security, you’re at greater risk for not being able to support yourself or your family. That can start a vicious cycle that I think should be taken under consideration. The other thing is it can sometimes prohibit you from being able to access professional licenses, educational opportunities, and government assistance.”

More people were arrested for marijuana in the United States in 2018 than in 2015, despite eight states legalizing or decriminalizing during that time. In every state that has decriminalized marijuana, black people are still more likely to be cited for possession.

“There are some human components here that we also have to think about,” said Lee Supervisor Rodney L. Lusk, who chairs the Board’s public safety committee, where oversight of this issue will continue. “The long-term impacts of the decisions we are making might go on for generations. Personally that’s not a place I want to be. I want to be changing and improving people’s lives for the better.”

Viewpoints

Kathy Smith, Sully Supervisor: “I would say many years ago when the laws were put in place about marijuana some of the effect was to affect certain populations. I think it’s inequitable.”

Rodney L. Lusk, Lee Supervisor: “The long term impacts of the decisions we are making might go on for generations. I want to be changing and improving people’s lives for the better.”

John Foust, Dranseville Supervisor: “I think possession of small quantities of marijuana has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people.”

Pat Herrity, Springfield Supervisor: “I would like to see the data of people who have gone to jail for possession of marijuana. I think we should have the numbers.”

Karla Bruce, Chief Equity Officer: “The term marijuana actually has equity implications. The term was adopted in the 1930s to create the most public anxiety in order to encourage the prohibition of its use.”

Edwin C. Roessler Jr., Fairfax County Chief of Police: “African American males and Hispanics are disproportionately charged, any way you look at it.”

James Walkinshaw, Braddock Supervisor: “If you’re African American or HIspanic you’re more likely to be arrested than if you look like me or like the Chairman here. And even in a place where we are committed to diversity and we have a department and a chief that is committed to it, we still have that challenge.”

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