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Movement to Reform Marijuana Laws Grows

May 12, 2010

By Laura Peters and Robin Hertel
Capital News Service

To many young people, smoking pot isn’t a big deal – hardly a crime to merit hard time in prison. But law enforcement authorities take marijuana possession seriously: Over the past 20 years, the number of marijuana arrests nationwide has nearly tripled – to more than 870,000 in 2007.

In Virginia that year, almost 20,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges. That was an increase of more than a third since 2003, according to the group DrugScience.org.

Some groups say that it’s overkill to arrest people for having a small amount of marijuana for personal use – and that it’s wrong to throw pot smokers in prison.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is advocating what it considers to be “more rational and cost-effective marijuana policies.” Dee Duffy, director of the Virginia chapter of NORML, says most people convicted of marijuana offenses are law-abiding citizens.

“They have families, hold jobs, are educated and pose no threat to the commonwealth,” Duffy said. “The greatest threat is to the person who is in jail for marijuana possession; the punishment far outweighs the crime.”

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According to Virginia law, possession of any amount of marijuana draws an automatic 30 days in jail and a fine of $500 as a first offense. As a subsequent offense, the sentence goes up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

Growing marijuana is a felony and can earn up to 30 years in jail and a $10,000 fine. The sale of a half-ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Any higher, and it’s counted as a felony: The seller can receive up to 50 years behind bars, depending on how much is being sold to whom, and can be fined up to $1 million.

In reaction to these laws, Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, introduced two pieces of legislation during this year’s General Assembly session: One would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana; the other would have allowed doctors to use marijuana to treat more diseases.

Morgan, 79, is a pharmacist and an assistant clinical professor of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school. Having served in the Virginia House for 31 years, Morgan said he did not expect the bills to go very far. And he was right: Both bills died in committee.

Morgan said he believed his proposals would save the state money – the cost of arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning marijuana smokers. And he felt his medical marijuana law would help ease the pain of people with debilitating diseases.

Duffy attended at a press conference at which Morgan discussed his measures and urged other legislators to support them. Duffy said the two bills were “essentially really good.” But she said some of the language made it easy for opponents to pick the bills apart.

“Delegate Robert Bell, for example, went to the extreme in interpretation of each word,” Duffy said.

“When going over HB 1134 for decriminalization, Bell reiterated the reduced penalties for possessing and selling under the proposed amounts and twisted it around to say, ‘So selling marijuana to a third-grader should be a civil fine?’ Because of the language as written, the answer was ‘yes.'”

NORML officials say marijuana laws should be changed for several reasons. For one thing, they say, the laws are selectively enforced. The group says this can be seen in a recent study that compared 2007 marijuana arrests by age and by sex in the United States. Men were about six times more likely than women to be arrested on marijuana charges.

Duffy also lamented the amount of money spent on arresting and jailing marijuana violators – especially at a time when budgets for public education and other government services are being cut.

“Public opinion will change. Gradually, but it will. Interest and concern increases, which makes more demands on legislators,” Duffy said.

“The money not spent on enforcing marijuana prohibition could go into the public schools, enabling them to have after school activities and transportation, having enough faculty and key personnel to improve conditions and standards of learning.”

Recently in Richmond, a woman on her way to court for a traffic violation was busted for possession of marijuana, giving her a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. told WTVR that arrests like these “should serve as a reminder that our deputies are constantly on alert for illegal items entering the courthouse.” He also said such arrests illustrate how drugs can affect someone’s ability to make rational decisions.

Detective Jason Thompson of the Henrico police says that growing marijuana is more common than people think.

“Within the past several months, we have come across several grow operations,” Thompson said. “They appear to be more common in the recent years than they used to be … I think it’s a trendy thing — a lot of the people that are into the marijuana culture. Personally, I think they find it interesting. It’s easy to grow.”

To ensure statewide enforcement, the Virginia State Police are working with the Governor’s Initiative Against Narcotics Trafficking, or G.I.A.N.T.

Part of G.I.A.N.T.’s mission is to curb the domestic cultivation of marijuana, indoor and outdoor, in Virginia, and to stop smugglers from bringing illegal drugs into the state by air and other means.

Despite efforts to control the spread of marijuana in the U.S., arrests continue to rise. According to FBI statistics from 2008, about 48 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana.

“There are so many marijuana arrests, I can’t even begin to imagine how to count them all,” Thompson said. “I have been to homes that the entire rooms have been gutted and used solely for the use of marijuana growing.”