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Norfolk considers decriminalizing marijuana

Norfolk City Councilman Paul R. Riddick is pushing for his Virginia city to join the growing trend towards decriminalizing marijuana, but his measure faces substantial procedural hurdles.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Riddick said the city should hear from police and legal experts about the ramifications of such a move — which would put Norfolk in the company of 21 states and the District of Columbia that in the past five years have removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Some individual towns have also considered the issue. 
Paul Goldman, former chief political strategist to two of Virginia’s democratic governors, thinks the request is unlikely to fuel legislative change.

“It’s not going to happen,” Goldman said. “They have to get a state law passed. In this case it would be a special legislation, I would think.

“If you look around the country, usually if you’re going to make these changes, the first thing they introduce is the medical use of marijuana,” Goldman said. “All the states that decriminalized, I believe they did the medical marijuana first.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia has historically rejected any move toward legalizing the drug, even for medical purposes. In February, a House of Delegates subcommittee rejected a bill sponsored by Virginia Sen. Louise Lucas that would have legalized marijuana plant derivatives for treating cancer.

However, at the end of the legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly did pass SB 701. The bill permits pharmaceutical processors to manufacture and provide cannabidiol oil and THC-A oil, derivatives of the cannabis plant, for the treatment of “intractable epilepsy,” according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System. Provisions of the bill only become effective if reenacted by the 2017 Session of the General Assembly.

“There’s a lot of fear surrounding the discussion,” said Cindy Cutler, a member of the advocacy group Decriminalize Norfolk. Cutler said members of the loose group of concerned citizens have met with the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, senators, and with Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander.

“A lot of people, friends and legislators, are curious,” Cutler said. “They want info and the vast majority of people want to see decriminalization and even legalization.”

Goldman said that Norfolk is far from being able to implement decriminalization because the city doesn’t have the authority to do so. The General Assembly would have to approve any such measure.

“They’re not going to decriminalize in one particular jurisdiction. That’s not how it works here,” Goldman said. “Next year’s an election year for the governor and so I can’t imagine. I don’t see what the General Assembly would gain by doing anything in the election year.”

Cutler says that even if the law doesn’t change, the city can choose to focus on major infractions and violent crimes rather than leveraging felony charges for small amounts of marijuana.

“In my research, I realized we have so many people being arrested, normally law abiding citizens,” Cutler said. “Decrim (sic) Norfolk is just trying to bring awareness and trying to get our local government to spend time on other offences and not to arrest people for possession only.”

According to Virginia Code 18.2-250.1, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a 30-day incarceration penalty and a maximum fine of $500.

“We understand it's at the discretion of the commonwealth attorney whether they prosecute these offences,” Cutler said. “We would like the city council to work with the police chief to move marijuana arrests to the bottom of their priority list.”

“This is something a locality could do,” Goldman said. “Direct the police not to make those arrests, not to handle certain cases. If you get caught with a small amount of marijuana there’s nothing to stop the police form letting you go on your way, and nothing to stop the prosecutor from not prosecuting.”