A resolution that would have marked a shift in city policy toward prosecuting marijuana possession was ultimately passed by City Council last week as a watered-down request for the state to re-examine its drug policy, but that didn’t keep the debate over legalization from raging on.
At the May 7 council meeting, the chambers overflowed with citizens ready to argue for or against marijuana decriminalization. After hearing from recovering drug addicts, attorneys, students, and parents, council members discussed the resolution at length. The original draft consisted of two parts, the first encouraging the Charlottesville Police Department to deprioritize by reducing punishment for possession and focusing on other crimes. The final paragraph proposed that the city address the Virginia General Assembly about a statewide decriminalization. It was the only portion that passed.
Councilor Dede Smith, who voted in favor of the resolution, said it will not change local policy, but is a step toward a statewide decision.
“We feel the sentencing guidelines [for marijuana possession] are just too harsh,” she said.
Smith said the operative paragraph changes nothing legally, but it calls on the state to do what the city cannot do, and is symbolic of Council’s duty to represent public sentiment.
Jordan McNeish, a Piedmont Virginia Community College student who spent six months in the Charlottesville City Jail for marijuana possession, agreed that the resolution was symbolic. But he said it’s a good start.
“It’s a matter of momentum,” he said. If other Virginia localities follow suit and create a groundswell of support, he said, the General Assembly will not be able to ignore the notion for much longer.
Thomas Silverstein, a UVA law student, is president of the University’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. The nationwide advocates for new drug policy, he said, are “really a mix of users and non-users,” some who have little at stake and others who have found that using drugs doesn’t ruin their lives.
“And there are people who have tragic stories about the damage the drug has done to their lives, but also recognize that the war on drugs is not making things better,” he said.
Silverstein said he got involved with the movement when he was an undergraduate, not for personal gain, but because he was troubled by racial disparities.
Matthew Fogg, a retired Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal who spoke at the Council meeting on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said the racial disparities exist because law enforcement officials want to “build their system.”
When Fogg was assigned to the Drug Enforcement Task Force, he said, he noticed that inner-city, low-income youth were being targeted. When he questioned why drug users in more affluent areas were not being targeted, he said a supervisor told him to “just go to the weakest link.”
There’s an overall fear in the system, he said, that affluent drug users may know lawyers, judges, or politicians who will fight back and ultimately shut the operation down, and the disparities exist because of the culture that’s in place.
“Until we address the culture, I would say, yes, decriminalize it,” Fogg said.
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo reminded Council members and attendees that, while a lot of time and money are spent on the war on drugs all around the country, this particular discussion is about the possession of marijuana.
Longo did not address the racial disparities when he spoke at the meeting, but argued that the numbers implied marijuana possession has already been deprioritized in Charlottesville. According to the department’s records, only 113 charges in 2011 were for marijuana possession, making up less than three percent off criminal charges for the year.
“We don’t expend a lot of time, energy or resources on the enforcement of that law,” he said.
But Silverstein argued that these numbers are deceptively low. He said the 113 charges do not account for paraphernalia or cases of seizing assets without arrest. He also compared Charlottesville to Seattle, a city that, after adapting a low priority policy, saw its number of possession charges drop from the 200s to the 100s.
“This is a city vastly bigger than Charlottesville, that, proportionately, made far fewer arrests, and after the policy, was still able to cut down on the number,” he said. “That example demonstrates there’s still room for there to be even less of an emphasis.”
Opponents of the resolution said they fear it will send the message to children that smoking pot is okay, and that it will increase the number of young people experimenting with the drug.
“The research does show that there are detrimental effects on young people and their development when they engage in this type of behavior,” said Longo.
Chris Winter, a Charlottesville resident and recovering drug addict, spoke passionately at the meeting. “I can say with conviction and honor that the casual use of cannabis is an obfuscation of the real and serious threat to all children,” he said.
McNeish disagreed. “It sends the message that we don’t want to arrest you and ruin your life just because you prefer pot over alcohol,” he said.
Supporters also predicted that the ultimate legalization would make pot less accessible to young people and actually reduce the number of kids using the drug, and Silverstein said he hopes data from other states adapting new policies will soon prove that.
“If there are three to five years of data showing that it doesn’t have that effect, it could really neutralize a lot of the arguments against it,” he said.
Supporters know that new policies won’t happen overnight, but Silverstein said if other states start to develop regulatory models and “don’t get too intimidated by the feds,” more people may see that it works.
In the meantime, proponents continue to push for support of new policies. During his presentation at the meeting, local attorney Jeff Fogel proposed that Council pass an ordinance prohibiting the possession of marijuana, but making it a Class 4 Misdemeanor so that nobody goes to jail for possession. He said until the state changes its policies and decriminalizes or legalizes the drug, the city can ensure that consequences for possession are less harsh.
“It’s not rocket science,” Fogel said. “It’s only the law.”
Listen to a segment on this topic from our public affairs talk show Soundboard, a partnership with WTJU and Charlottesville Tomorrow, in the player below…