Racial disparities in enforcement persist after marijuana legalization in Virginia


A year after Virginia lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana in hopes of reducing racial disparities in law enforcement, police in the state are still more likely to arrest blacks than whites for marijuana offenses, according to a Washington Post analysis.

While marijuana arrests have fallen overall in the year since Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize, black adults accounted for nearly 60% of marijuana-related cases before the United States District General. state and circuit courts, an analysis of marijuana-related code citations in the state court system concluded, although blacks make up approximately 20% of the state’s population.

The findings echo findings seen in other states and the District of Columbia, as state legislators across the country increasingly portray legalization as a vehicle for social equity — a the intent of Democratic lawmakers in Virginia who hoped to reverse the toll of the national war on drugs on black communities. Maryland lawmakers expressed similar hopes for impact when they decided to ask voters if they want to legalize recreational use on the ballot next month. Still gaps between intent and implementation persist, with white contractors thus far making up most of the the legal market as black people continue to account for the bulk of marijuana-related arrests nationwide.

While racial equity often motivates calls for reform – President Biden announced last week that he would issue massive pardons to anyone found guilty of federal charges of simple possession as a first step to “righting those wrongs” — cannabis and criminal justice experts have said the disparities will remain stubborn amid broader, unchanging trends in policing.

“Police practices haven’t changed,” said Jon Gettman, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Shenandoah University. “The laws they have to enforce have changed, but the practices have not changed.”

These practices often relate to the structural organization of police operations and where officers are deployed, Gettman said, and areas where police are more concentrated, due to increased crime or increased need for these services, often tend to have more minorities. And law enforcement officials say the changing marijuana laws are complex and have at times been difficult to manage.

Inside the ‘wild, wild west’ of Virginia’s marijuana market

Virginia law allowed people 21 or older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in public and grow up to four potted plants at home. But the sales remained illegal under Virginia law, to give lawmakers time to establish a framework for the new market. Therefore, distribution fee make up the bulk of marijuana-related arrests.

Possession of more than one ounce was punishable by a $25 civil penalty in the first year of legalization (Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) proposed and signed legislation that went into effect July 1 of this year that created misdemeanor charges for possession of more than four ounces). Possession of more than a pound is a crimeas if sell more than one ounce of marijuana.

The Post’s analysis was drawn from a list of more than 1,700 marijuana-related code citations between July 1, 2021 and the end of June this year, provided by the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court. in response to a Virginia Freedom of Information Request for Act. The data does not include data from Alexandria Circuit Court or the state’s juvenile court, and race data was only labeled as black, white, Asian and unknown.

The list is made up of cases in which a code relating to the use, possession or sale of marijuana has been registered. The majority of cases included code quotes for sales Where possession by those under 21. The data does not reflect the nature of these arrests or any other charges in an individual case.

Certain other marijuana-related charges in police data, such as possession by those who are incarceratedwere not included in the analysis.

While overall marijuana-related citations have fallen about 90% in Virginia from 2019, those bearing the brunt of enforcement still face compounded repercussions, said Ashley Shapiro, public defender in Richmond and criminal justice reform advocate with Justice Forward Virginia.

“Any time there is a criminal consequence, there are intended and unintended consequences with getting a job, with applying for housing,” Shapiro said. “So there are a lot of collateral consequences, even in this time when it’s technically legalized.”

And in a state like Virginia, enforcement could be very location-dependent. The Chesterfield County General District Court has had the second most arrests in the state behind the Virginia Beach General District Court, despite being the fifth most populous. In Chesterfield, black defendants made up 71% of the 110 pot-related cases in the year after legalization, according to Post analysis.

In Fairfax County, the most populous county in the state, black defendants made up just over 30% of the 108 weed-related cases the year after legalization passed.

“It’s further proof that there shouldn’t be penalties, because whoever gets penalties, or the majority of people who get penalties, at this point will be black and brown people who are already marginalized,” he said. said Chelsea Higgs Wise, manager. Director of Marijuana Justice, a Virginia legalization advocacy group.

State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), one of the main sponsors of legalization, said that until this regulatory framework is established and there is a legal pathway for sales in Virginia, the patchwork enforcement of existing laws will continue to be a problem. problem.

“It is long overdue that we put in place a legal marketplace that allows adults to buy legally and until we do, we will continue to see patterns in the patchwork enforcement of cannabis crimes,” Ebbin said.

But even states with legal markets, according to a 2016 report, have failed to completely eliminate disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws. John Hudak, Brookings Institution senior fellow in governance studies, pointed out that even if disproportionate enforcement doesn’t go down, the number of arrests does, so there are fewer people of color arrested for crimes. cannabis-related crimes after legalization than before legalization.

“People need to think about addressing issues of race in our country as an important, overarching institutional effort, which political reform will not solve,” Hudak said. “You don’t undo 400 years of racial injustice by passing a single law in the state.”

The Commonwealth decriminalized possession of marijuana in 2020, leading to the first major drop in enforcement. In 2019, the reported status over 26,000 marijuana-related adult arrests. This number has dropped to more than 13,000 in 2020.

And for all of 2021 — which included the six months after legalization took effect on July 1 — there were just over 2,000 marijuana-related arrests.

JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia’s National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform, said the lower numbers were a win for Virginia, noting a recent study that if legalization does not eliminate the disparities – states that did not legalize showed increasing arrest disparities between blacks and whites over time.

How Legal Weed Changed America

“What sensible cannabis policy can do is remove some of the tools used for disproportionate policing from the toolbox,” Pedini said. “Including decriminalization, eliminating the use of the scent of marijuana for search or seizure, and then legalization.”

Virginia police said they are adapting to new laws, but the complexity of what’s legal and what’s not can sometimes be difficult to navigate, especially changes that don’t depend on the law. odor of cannabis as a cause.

“The big thing is if you had a traffic stop and you smelled an odor, basically the officer would control whether that person can walk free or not,” said Jeff Guess of the PDPD. Henry County. But now, “we need to show something more, not just the smell.”

Guess, the commander of the organized crime section, said the agency still pursues marijuana-related offenses, but possession violations aren’t always a priority.

“If it’s just a civil penalty, when you’re an administrator and you have to answer for more serious drugs that are out there, people overdose and die, you kind of have to weigh your options,” said Guess said.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said handling traffic stops — especially for impaired driving — has been difficult statewide because there are no standards established to measure a person’s impairment from marijuana. As for patchwork enforcement, Schrad said the issue is more nuanced than people tend to think, such as considering where service calls are generated or where there are more accidents.

“It’s just something where it’s still a violation of federal law and theoretically we should be able to rely on it,” Schrad said. “But we can’t because it’s a different legal framework here in Virginia.”


Comments are closed.