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Virginia Cannabis Arrests In Free Fall After Legalization

Marijuana arrests have plummeted more than 90 percent in the Richmond region since Virginia’s legalization of Cannabis

Outlaw Report

Marijuana arrests have plummeted 90% in the Richmond region since Virginia’s cannabis legalization went into effect on July 1.

The law legalized adult (21-plus) possession of up to an ounce and the cultivation of four pot plants per household.

During the first seven weeks of the law, police made only 25 marijuana-related arrests in central Virginia. The area includes Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico. For comparison, they made 257 pot arrests during the same seven-week period in 2020, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.The numbers come from arrest data provided by law enforcement officials in those localities.

“A 90% reduction in marijuana arrests indicates that the public policy is performing as intended and in a manner that is consistent with post-legalization observations from other states,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML.

It’s Still Pretty Easy To Get Arrested, Though…

A few stoners who probably aren’t yet familiar with the nuances of the law still got charged. The faces charges of possessing or distributing the herb. These are almost entirely in cases that don’t fall within the statute’s sometimes-befuddling stipulations.

Police found more than 50 suspected marijuana plants in a Chesterfield man’s truck and inside his home. That, of course, far exceeds the legal cultivation limit of four plants. Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t tagged his plants with the grower’s name and driver’s license number as the new law requires.

Police said the person who jointly owns the house with the pot grower, but doesn’t live there, called police. They decided to report the grower possessed more Cannabis plants than the new law allows.

Police charged the man with possession with intent to distribute more than 5 pounds, and possession of between 50 and 100 plants.

Several Underage Arrests Made

The largest number of arrests — 10 — were marijuana users in the 18-20 age range. These people face charges of simple possession of the herb while under the legal age of 21, a civil violation. The new law allows adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce for recreational use. It’s still illegal to share or use marijuana in public,

The first in the region to be charged since legalization was a 19-year-old Chesterfield man.

In that case on July 15, an officer ran a registration check of a vehicle. The cop, after determining the vehicle’s owner was showing a suspended license, initiated a traffic stop. The 19-year-old owner was driving the vehicle, police said. Cops cited the teen for driving on a suspended license and underage possession of Cannabis.

No Statistics By Race? That’s A Problem.

Some activists argue the drop in arrests doesn’t tell the whole story, according to The Outlaw Report. The Virginia State Police report doesn’t include a breakdown of cannabis arrests by racial demographics.

Despite legalization, Virginia police continue to disproportionately enforce marijuana laws against Black people, said Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director at Marijuana Justice.

“Virginia State Police releasing the latest crime report, but omitting racial demographics, continues the Commonwealth’s 402-year-old legacy of erasing the Black experience and painting us as deserving of this racist enforcement,” said Higgs Wise. “It should horrify every Virginian to know that our elected officials are voting on legislation with such large gaps of information missing that impact an already disenfranchised community.”

She called police omitting racial demographics in the recently released report a “red flag.”

She said Virginia should stop relying on state police to analyze crime statistics. 

Black people in Virginia statistically are arrested for marijuana more than are White people. In fact, they are four times more likely, a February report by Virginia Public Media found. Six months after Virginia legalized pot, about 50% of people arrested for possession were Black, the report showed. That’s despite the fact that Black Virginians make up just 20% of the state’s population.

“Disparate enforcement at any level allows for the continued extraction of resources from our Black communities specifically through fines, court fees and the inevitable jail and prison sentences,” Higgs Wise said.

Be Careful In Chesterfield

The large majority of marijuana arrests since the law went into effect have been in Chesterfield, Virginia. Chesterfield police have charged or issued summonses to 20 people through August 19. Seven of those were juveniles ages 16 or 17. But even Chesterfield’s Cannabis arrests have dropped a whopping 86% so far in 2021.

I mean we’re not out actively looking for [marijuana] arrests. But if we see violations of the law, and we feel it appropriate, we make the charge.

Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz

“In terms of our enforcement, we have not shied away from enforcing any laws that are on the books,” boasted Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz. “We believe that arrests or prosecutions is advantageous for public safety. So that’s kind of the philosophy that we operate under.”

In late June, as the state’s legalization law was about to go into effect, Katz posted a message on Facebook warning Virginians about the statute’s nuances. He included a short video that outlined the provisions. Some saw this as a “ways I can still bust you because I”m a cop and I still don’t like pot” type of message.

It’s Going To Be A Long Time Before Virginia Pot Stores Open

Selling Cannabis is still illegal in Virginia. And it will continue to be illegal until the state launches the regulated legal market in 2024 and issues licenses for growing, processing and retail sales. Possession with intent to sale can still result in felony charges.

In fact, possession with intent to distribute between 1 ounce and 5 pounds of marijuana is an offense still punishable in Virginia by up to 10 years in prison.

Working towards the goal of legal sales, though, the Virginia General Assembly established the Cannabis Control Authority. That’s the regulatory board that will work to launch the state’s new legal marijuana market and ensure compliance with state rules.

Like Chief Katz, though, Hanover Sheriff David Hines said legalization has not lessened his department’s commitment to enforcing the law.

“If a violation is observed, the appropriate charges are placed,” Sheriff Hines repeated as if mouthing a cop mantra.

It’s no surprise. With the changes in Virginia’s marijuana law, “our number of arrests have decreased” for weed, the sheriff said. Hanover did not record a single marijuana arrest between July 1 and Aug. 20.

Cannabis enforcement hasn’t been a priority for the Richmond police department. This year Richmond officers are contending with an alarming number of shootings and killings.