The levels of government in America can be confusing to anyone without a PhD in civics. How is a regular person to know whether an issue is legislated at the federal, state, or local level?
Politicians play on this ignorance. We see it in Norfolk and Hampton Roads on a regular basis. Whenever a local elected official is asked about a topic they feel cagey about, they have a super convenient way to punt: by informing the concerned citizen that Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, meaning that city or county laws may not conflict with state laws.
While it is true that Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, too often that fact is used as a cop out. No matter the issue, there are always things that can be done on the municipal level to address a societal problem, or to help find a solution. Be it LGBT protections, gender equality, voter access, or marijuana law reform, there is always more that a city can be doing to live up to its highest values. Our leaders only have to be creative enough to figure out what that more is, and be brave enough to do it.
Let’s take marijuana law reform. No, Norfolk cannot legalize marijuana. But, there is still much, much more that Norfolk can do to mitigate the negative impacts of marijuana prohibition, while also preventing youth access and ensuring Norfolk citizens have access to the safest, highest quality, and least expensive medical cannabis possible.
While state laws are written in black and white, there is an element of discretion in how the police police, how the prosecutors prosecute, and how the judges judge. A city can officially deem enforcing marijuana possession their police force’s “lowest priority,” for example. A local government can also instruct their Commonwealth’s Attorney not to prosecute simple possession. Possession is still enforced, and marijuana remains illegal, but instead a prosector handling the case in court, the arresting officer does, just as traffic violations are.
“Our local Commonwealth’s Attorney should have enough backbone to stop giving law enforcement a free pass when it comes to pulling people over in their cars or stopping them on the street for the suspicion of marijuana in cases where none is to be found,” said SW Dawson, a Norfolk attorney who ran for Commonwealth’s Attorney on a platform that highlighted marijuana reform. “These searches and seizures are illegal and foster distrust between citizens and the police. If elected prosecutors took a stand against such nonsense, our legislators in Richmond would certainly take notice.”
There is a trend across America of cities stepping up.
“More and more local leaders recognize that maintaining marijuana criminalization is a waste of limited resources and deepens distrust between the community and law enforcement, said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).“
Let me repeat that last bit for the congregation in the back: marijuana criminalization deepens distrust between the community and law enforcement.
This is a fact, albeit an uncomfortable one for a lot of folks to reconcile. But it is a fact we must reconcile, because marijuana reform is a civil rights issue, and it is a Black Lives Matters issue, in a time where we have to be taking tangible, systemic steps forward.
Marijuana arrests are actually on the rise in Virginia — up 20% — at a time when the country is clearly headed in the opposite direction. And while marijuana use is equal amongst races, black Virginians, despite making up only 20% of the state’s population, are arrested and incarcerated for possession at much higher rates than their white counterparts. This is a call to action.
Again, this a very hard truth for many to swallow, but marijuana laws, in effect, are a tool of racial injustice. It is a statistical fact.
“The ACLU of Virginia is highly concerned about racial disparities in enforcement of marijuana laws which needlessly expose thousands of African-Americans to the criminal justice system each year and vary wildly from locality to locality,” said Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the ACLU of Virginia. “On average, blacks are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for simple marijuana possession, and in some localities the ratio rises as high as nearly eight-to-one.”
Beyond the social justice aspect of marijuana law reform on the local level, there is also the medicinal aspect. Just this past General Assembly, Virginia created a regulated medical cannabis industry. Within the next year Hampton Roads will almost certainly be the home to a dispensary — but just one, to start.
The citizens of that city will have the best access to this life-changing medicine. And that city will most reap the tax revenue benefits. We all know it: this industry is going to be huge in Virginia. Will the dispensary end up in Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach, or elsewhere? We will soon find out. Both Hampton and Virginia Beach made public displays of overture to the medical cannabis industry. Norfolk did not. We will see how that impacts the state regulators making these decisions.
The pressure is on the city level to do something about the impact of the war on drugs on its citizens, and to help the regulated medical cannabis industry thrive. You know the state of affairs on at the federal level, and the Virginia General Assembly is still painfully conservative on the House side. I asked Virginia NORML’s executive director, Jenn Michelle Pedini — maybe the foremost expert on Virginia marijuana law reform — when she expected adult recreational use to be legal in Virginia.
“Will Virginia legalize marijuana? Absolutely. The current legislature claims to first want a shift in federal policy before implementing a regulated adult-use model. That’s a punt though,” said Pedini. “Virginia’s adopted a regulated medical-use program, which conflicts with federal law as much as regulating adult-use does.”
Strekal thinks other dominoes might have to fall first.
“Given that Virginians do not have the right to amend their government through the ballot initiative process,” Strekal added, “my suspicion would be that after a limited number of other states legalize the adult use and distribution of marijuana through the legislative process, the state will begin in good faith to negotiate what a regulatory system would look like in the Commonwealth.
In a Commonwealth that takes great pride in its sense of leadership and duty, I am not content to wait for those other states before we make a change here.
It’s time for us to be a leader on this civil rights, health, and personal freedom issue of our time.
Norfolk, it’s up to you.
Join Virginia NORML at O’Connor Brewing Company tonight at 7:00 PM for a forum on marijuana laws at the local level in Virginia. It’s part of the Legalize Virginia Festival, which continues through tomorrow at O’Connor Brewing Company.
Jesse Scaccia is the Director of Strategic Communications and Development for Virginia NORML. Formerly the editor-in-chief of AltDaily.com for almost ten years, Jesse has been active in our community in various ways, including helping to develop the NEON District, working to move PRIDE to Town Point Park, legalizing street performance, and increasing voter turnout and civic engagement.