By MORGAN TOLAN AND ELLIE WATSON
(CNS) – From 2015 to 2019, there were more than 23,000 Virginians arrested for simple possession of marijuana, averaging about 5,000 residents a year.
“All my life I’ve heard justice delayed is justice denied,” Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Emporia City, said in the Senate session.
Lucas is a co-patron, and strong proponent, for the bill SB1406. The bill eliminates criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana, modifies other criminal punishments related to marijuana and creates an automatic expungement process for those convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes.
SB1406 is the next step in the marijuana legalization process, after its decriminalization which occurred last year, Lucas said.
Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria City, introduced the bill.
“This is a deliberate, thoughtful approach to how best to end the prohibition on cannabis that has clearly failed the Commonwealth and hundreds of thousands of people have been branded as criminals because of it,” Ebbin said in a phone interview.
Virginia criminal defense lawyer Paul Galanides agrees that marijuana has wrongfully criminalized too many people. Galanides has worked as an attorney in Richmond for about 20 years.
In his experience, police officers tend to use the smell of marijuana as an avenue for intrusion, Galanides said, meaning it provides them the grounds to search a car during a traffic spot.
“All kinds of drugs, like cocaine, PCP… that I think are much more dangerous to our society don’t give the police the same sort of avenue to get this [search],” Galanides said.
Legalizing marijuana would also allow for greater trust between citizens and police, Galanides said.
“I think that most marijuana users for the most part, are pretty law-abiding citizens,” he said. “The harm to society doesn’t justify the level of intrusion.”
SB1406 entails a three-year process.
Retail sales of marijuana would not be allowed to begin until Jan. 1, 2024. Until then, the state would work on getting licenses and training officers on how to deal with those under the influence of marijuana.
The expungement process would also take a few years to finalize, with the ultimate goal being automatic expungement for those convicted of specific marijuana-related crimes.
“It would allow for a petition for expungement for people who’ve been convicted and haven’t had subsequent offenses,” Ebbin said. “And then within a few years, it would become automatic.”
Virginia would become the 17th U.S. jurisdiction to legalize marijuana if the bill passes. New Jersey became the latest to do so on Monday.