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Marijuana decriminalization advocates unfazed

Advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana are disappointed in a legislative panel’s decision to kill a bill that would have shifted simple possession from a criminal conviction to a civil penalty.

House Bill 1443, sponsored by Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, sought to change the current punishment for simple marijuana possession – a $500 fine and a maximum of 30 days in jail – to a civil penalty carrying the fine only.

A subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended that the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” essentially killing it for this legislative session.

“It’s not a defeat or a loss,” said Dee Duffy, executive director of the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Anytime we can get up and testify, it’s never a loss or a defeat.”

Her organization was part of a lobbying effort that encouraged supporters to attend the subcommittee’s Jan. 17 hearing. For Duffy, the hearing was an unpleasant reminder of last year, when the same criminal-law subcommittee killed Morgan’s 2010 bill decriminalizing marijuana.

“I think they knew exactly what they were doing before the committee even convened,” Duffy said. “They had no intention of passing it.”

For now, Duffy plans to work to mobilize voters for the upcoming House of Delegates election cycle.

“If you want to change the law,” she said, “you’ve got to change the lawmakers.”

Supporters of Morgan’s legislation want to see the criminal conviction done away with because of its effect on an offender’s permanent record. A drug charge can be a barrier to employment in many fields and can prevent students from receiving federal aid. The mere record of an arrest can be enough to cause problems.

“Punishments for possession of marijuana are far more dangerous than the drug itself. The policy ruins lives,” said Devon Tackels, president of the Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

“We’ve got people who are going to become doctors, lawyers or teachers, and they’re seeing their futures slowly slip away based on one mistake,” Tackels said. “It’s really sad that we do that to people.”

His organization participated in lobbying efforts to support Morgan’s bill. Tackels attended the subcommittee hearing with several other SSDP members.

“It really hurt, after all the work we put in, to see the committee members – it was like the whole thing happened and they weren’t paying attention,” Tackels said.

Brooke Napier, SSDP policy specialist, shared that impression.

“They didn’t seem to take the issue very seriously,” she said.

Tackels said he would like to see more understanding and awareness of the issue from the elected representatives making the decision.

“The committee didn’t show the empathy I would have liked to have seen from somebody in a position of legislation power,” he said. “They just really didn’t seem to get it.”

Opponents of marijuana use believe the drug should remain illegal because it is dangerous. They say marijuana causes short-term memory loss and has mood-altering effects. On its website, the Foundation for a Drug-Free World lists anxiety, lowered reaction time and a reduced resistance to common illnesses as possible side effects of marijuana use.

Officials with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education echo those concerns. D.A.R.E. is a program led by police officers that teaches children how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug- and violence-free lives.

In an e-mail interview, Gene Ayers, the coordinator for D.A.R.E. in Virginia, said, “I realize there is a good deal of money being poured into the decriminalization of marijuana, but I think this would create many more problems than it could ever solve.”

HB 1443 would not legalize marijuana. Rather, it “changes the current $500 criminal fine for simple marijuana possession to a $500 civil penalty, eliminates the 30-day jail sentence, and eliminates the criminal conviction record that would follow a conviction for simple possession,” according to the description by the Legislative Information Service, the General Assembly’s record-keeping system.

“The bill changes none of the penalties for manufacture or distribution of marijuana. The bill continues to require forfeiture of the driver's license and drug screening and education for any minor found to have committed the violation of possession of marijuana and maintains all existing sanctions for all criminal violations involving marijuana.”

The Courts of Justice subcommittee agreed by voice vote to shelve the bill.

The bill may be done for this legislative session, but Napier sees a silver lining.

“I went away from this feeling disappointed in the representatives,” she said. “And it made me want to mobilize and fight harder.”

For the Record
On Jan. 17, the criminal-law subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended “passing by indefinitely” House Bill 1443, thus killing the proposal. The subcommittee took the action by voice vote; the Legislative Information Service, the General Assembly’s record-keeping system, does not show how the members voted.

Delegate Harvey Morgan, the bill’s sponsor, said all subcommittee members who were present supported the motion to kill HB 1443. Those members were Delegates David Albo, R-Springfield; Richard Bell, R-Staunton; Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst; Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock; Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria; Jackson Miller, R-Manassas; Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach; and Vivian Watts, D-Annandale.
Delegate Ward Armstrong, D-Martinsville, was absent at the time of the vote.

For more information on:
• the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, visit http://www.virginianorml.org.
• Students for Sensible Drug Policy, visit http://www.ssdp.org
• the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, visit http://www.dare.com
• the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, visit http://www.drugfreeworld.org

To track or comment on Delegate Harvey Morgan’s bill to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, visit http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/hb1443
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