Like many states, Virginia arrests more people for marijuana than all other illicit drugs combined. In fact, almost 20,000 people were arrested in 2008 alone. Recently, members of Virginia Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapters collaborated with drug policy reformers across the state to organize a statewide lobbying day in support of marijuana decriminalization. If passed, VA HB 1443 would have decriminalized simple possession of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a $500 civil fine. With help from Marijuana Policy Project, Virginians Against Drug Violence, and Virginia NORML, VA SSDPers were able to gather widespread constituent support through a collaborative grassroots campaign.
On January 17th, SSDP at VCU and SSDP at NoVA convened chapter members to meet with their state delegates, lobbying in favor of marijuana decriminalization. SSDP’s delegation then met with several delegates who comprised the referring committee, those of House Courts and Justice. Following the lobbying, drug policy reformers packed the hearing and awaited the outcome of the bill. Del. Harvey Morgan (VA-R), the bill’s chief sponsor, said that he was not advocating marijuana use “at all,” but rather that if a person is arrested -“even if it’s set aside” by the first offender law in Virginia – the arrest and possible conviction are “always on your record as an arrest for a drug offense.” Because of this, he said, “anyone who has that on a record finds that it is an absolute barrier to employment for a commercial driver’s license, to work in a health care profession, and to be a teacher.” This is especially damaging in fields that require the use of background information for security purposes. Morgan stated, “they do a background check and up pops a drug offense and they just cannot hire you.”
After his comments about the legislation, Morgan presented three witnesses to testify in its support, including Richard Kennedy, PhD., a retired CIA analyst. The hearing continued with more than a dozen members of the public uniformly testifying in favor of the bill in front of the House committee. This group included two members of SSDP at Virginia Commonwealth University, Brooke Napier and Devon Tackels, and one member from SSDP Northern Virginia Community College, Mike Cavender. Nobody spoke out against the legislation, and Del. Morgan made note that he had overwhelming support from constituents.
Despite the harm of marijuana prohibition to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and potential benefits of decriminalization, committee leaders were not open to changing the current policy. Committee members seemed out of touch with constituents and afraid to publicly support the legislation. In the end, the committee chose to PBI, or pass the bill indefinitely for the session. Although we are disappointed with the outcome, we understand that marijuana reform does not happen overnight. Virginia drug policy reformers must continue to engage in state’s delegates education, and advise them of the crucial nature of this legislation for the future of our state. However, despite our loss this round, VA SSDP reaffirms its power to reform marijuana policies in the Commonwealth. We will not stop until we meet this objective, and at this juncture in our movement we require more students to lobby all state delegates, in Virginia and other states where marijuana reform looks likely.