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Racial Disparities Persist After Marijuana Decriminalization

Marijuana plant
A flowering marijuana plant at the gLeaf medical marijuana facility. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

When Virginia Democrats moved to decriminalize marijuana last year, lawmakers pitched the move as a first step at addressing long-standing racial disparities in drug arrests.

But a new VPM analysis of court records since the policy went into effect shows Black individuals in Virginia are still nearly four times more likely than white people to face summons over marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

Around 50% of people logged for marijuana possession offenses that occured in Virginia from July 1, 2020 through Jan. 11, 2021 were African Americans. Roughly 20% of the state’s population is Black.

The recent data aligns closely with a 2019 state report. The study from the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission found Black individuals were three and a half times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges and four times more likely to be convicted from 2010 to 2019.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said the data highlighted the urgency in fully legalizing marijuana possession during this year’s legislative session.

“The only way to stop these racial disparities and targeted policing is to legalize it July 1,” Higgs Wise said.

Bryan Kennedy, an attorney who serves as the policy director for the advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia, obtained the data on behalf of a coalition of 24 other groups, including Marijuana Justice and the ACLU of Virginia. The data does not include Fairfax Circuit Court and Alexandria Circuit Court, though circuit courts very rarely hear cases involving marijuana possession.

Overall Virginia marijuana arrests dipped to around 26,500 in 2019, down nearly 9% from the year before. But longer term trends show arrests have more than tripled since 1999, when the state logged around 9,000 arrests.

Decriminalization to Legalization

The decriminalization bill passed last year changed how marijuana cases are treated. Under current law, people caught with an ounce or less of cannabis face a $25 civil penalty where they might previously have been fined up to $2,500 and served up to a year in jail for a second offense. The new citations don’t appear on a person’s permanent record in the Central Criminal Records Exchange.

This year, Democratic lawmakers have turned to legalizing adult use of marijuana entirely. The state Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana possession July 1; a different proposal passed by the House of Delegates would delay that until cannabis retail stores open in 2024. A small group of lawmakers will try to reconcile those and other differences in private over the next two weeks.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), the House Majority Leader who is carrying Gov. Ralph Northam’s legalization bill, said that legalizing possession before retail stores were up and running in 2024 could cause the black market to mushroom and give larger retailers a leg up. But she acknowledged concerns from activists over waiting longer.

“I think that's something that we will discuss in conference,” she said, referring to the ongoing negotiations.

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County), who, like Herring, is also an attorney, argued that the black market was already strong. And he said he and other lawmakers were not satisfied with the solution drafted last year.

“I thought it was kind of a pretend decriminalization because we kept all the negative consequences of a conviction while just renaming it ‘civil’ instead of ‘criminal’ and taking away people's right to counsel,” Surovell said.

Geography

Marijuana possession cases were distributed unevenly across the state. Chesterfield County led the state, logging nearly 600 cases. Two-thirds of the cases involved African Americans despite the fact that they make up only a quarter of the county’s population.

A spokesperson for the Chesterfield County Police Department said she was unable to respond to questions by Thursday evening because of staff shortages caused by the winter storm.

Hanover County had among the highest rates of marijuana summons per capita in the state. Black individuals received 62% of the summons but make up just 9.5% of the population.

James Cooper, a spokesman for the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, noted that 79% of the overall citations involved people who were not residents of the county, which he described as a “very transient community.”

“The numbers taken on face value can be very misleading without dissecting them further,” Cooper said in an email. “We have and always will enforce the law equally regardless of skin color.”

Other localities took a different approach. Courts in Charlottesville, Highland County and Poquoson County did not record any summons during the period.

Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said it was too soon to evaluate the effects of decriminalization given the pandemic changed many people’s habits. Schrad cited the novelty of the new laws, concerns about impaired driving and questions over the expungement process as reasons why the association opposes a July 1 rollout of legalization.

Schrad said thousands of officers were trained on implicit bias via a program the association unveiled last year.

“We did have officers who kind of bristled at it at first, but then they said later, ‘Okay, we get it,’” Schrad said.

Schard argued the inequities in marijuana citations tapped into a far larger issue.

“It's not just an issue of who we arrest, it's an issue of making sure that we do the work as a state to address all aspects of helping our minority communities to have the same opportunities as everybody else,” Schrad said.

A Final Push

For legalization advocates, the data drove home their longstanding belief that decriminalization could not solve the problem it set out to.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, called decriminalization “an important step to reducing marijuana-related arrests” but said it would not fix the underlying disparities.

“The legislature must act swiftly to legalize the responsible use of cannabis by adults and begin undoing the harms of prohibition inflicted overwhelmingly on poor, young, Black and brown Virginians,” Pedini said in a statement.