For weeks, conservative activists across Virginia have been scratching their heads, collectively wondering how, when, and if Ed Gillespie will seize grassroots support from former gubernatorial rivals Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart. Issues some label populist are motivating factors for growing, dedicated swaths of activists, such as the decriminalization of marijuana use. According to polling data release by the Pew Research Center, Millennials and “Gen Xer’s” outvoted Baby Boomers and older generations in 2016 election. Consequently, millennials view social issues as their biggest concern, chiefly of which is the government’s policy of the legality of marijuana use.
Current penalties for marijuana possession in Virginia are among the harshest in the country. Getting caught with even a small amount of marijuana can lead to a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. According to research conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance, arrests involving the possession of marijuana looked at nationwide dropped 6.5 percent between 2003 and 2014. However, in the same time frame, marijuana possession arrests in the Commonwealth increased 76 percent. Moreover, the arrest rate for black individuals involving the possession of marijuana in Virginia increased 106 percent.
Just to the north, Washington D.C. has seen marijuana arrests drop by more than 90 percent since legalizing recreational marijuana in 2014, according to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As more states in the union begin to decriminalize and legalize marijuana for personal use, citizens are now wondering whether or not the Commonwealth of Virginia will join the evolution of public policy and the trend of government getting out of the lives of the people.
Congressman Tom Garrett (R-VA) has been attempting to bring decriminalization to the federal level. In February of 2017, Garrett sponsored H.R. 1227: Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. This bill is defined as follows:
“This bill amends the Controlled Substances Act to provide that the Act’s regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal penalties do not apply to with respect to marijuana. It removes marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinols from schedule I. (A schedule I controlled substance is a drug, substance, or chemical that: has a high potential for abuse; has no currently accepted medical value; and is subject to regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal penalties under the Controlled Substances Act.) Additionally, it eliminates criminal penalties for an individual who imports, exports, manufactures, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute marijuana. The bill does, however, make it a crime to knowingly ship or transport marijuana into a state where its receipt, possession, or sale is prohibited. A violator is subject to criminal penalties—a fine, a prison term of up to one year, or both.”
According to an article from Washington Post, Virginia expended $67.2 million in 2010 to enforce marijuana laws. By changing public policy of marijuana use from a criminal to a civil matter, law enforcement expenditures, judicial and legal services expenditures, and corrections expenditures will be reduced, thus created an economic interest for the state to decriminalize the personal use of marijuana.
Using a modified proportionate cost methodology with economic numbers from the 2010 fiscal year, Harvard economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron has calculated three estimates of the annual fiscal costs of marijuana possession arrests in the United States, according to the ACLU study, which are denoted as the low estimate, middle estimate, and high estimate. Using national statistics to define the adjudication costs including resources used to locate, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate individuals with corrections costs, he has found that the estimates are $1.196 billion for the low estimate, $3.614 billion for the middle estimate, and $6.032 billion for the high estimate, respectively. Therefore, the allocated cost devoted to the prosecution and correction for criminal individuals when shared with marijuana possession holds a heavy burden on the state’s fiscal responsibility.
By changing the charge of marijuana possession for personal use from a criminal penalty to a civil penalty, the federal and state governments would save precious time and resources used to house individuals for small, mostly victimless crimes. Notwithstanding current marijuana policies, the prohibition of usage of a motor vehicle must still be enforced as drivers suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana will still be a criminal matter. Moreover, the quantity of marijuana insofar as it is being used for personal use needs to be defined.
Both Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart support the decriminalization of adult use of marijuana in small quantities for personal consumption. Simply put, it is another way to get the government out of the lives of well-meaning Virginians. It allows for police to fight real crime and for the court system to punish real criminals. In Style Weekly, Stewart stated, “[he] supports decriminalizing marijuana possession, “because criminalizing public health issues has robbed generations of Americans of hope for their futures and of their dignity.”
As a campaign stipulation for Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the decriminalization of marijuana is a top social issue among young voters. In 2016, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a poll taken from 931 adult Virginians which concluded that “almost 8 out of 10 respondents favored reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a $100 fine instead of a misdemeanor conviction, and 62 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that recreational use of marijuana should be legalized.”
Gubernatorial hopeful Gillespie can gain some political ground with millennials and small government Republicans by supporting changing marijuana possession from a criminal matter to a civil one. The capital saved by decriminalizing marijuana will allow the commonwealth to dedicate more funds to fighting the bigger issues in the state like opiate crisis. Northam wants to allocate the savings to give to preschoolers and kindergartners, but the money can be better used elsewhere. The millions of dollars saved can be used to set up addiction programs for the seemingly insurmountable number of Virginians that are affected by addictions to heroin, painkillers, and other opiate-form drugs. Moreover, law enforcement officers will be able to devote more time and money to getting real criminals off the streets and making Virginia one of the safest places to live in the country.
Opinion by Alex Lemieux