The Decriminalize Harrisonburg campaign is a grassroots endeavor aimed to stop the prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession in the jurisdiction of the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
We aim to save local taxpayer dollars from jail and court costs, as well as prevent community members and students from entering the cyclical criminal justice system.
City council taking this stance is not a far step from the status quo, as the Harrisonburg Rockingham Regional Jail claim no one is currently incarcerated solely for the possession of marijuana. Moreover, Norfolk’s city council recently endorsed the policy of decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.The council unanimously voted in favor of its 2018 agenda for state legislature, of which item four supports “the decriminalization of simple possession of marijuana as well as the expansion of conditions that physicians licensed by the Virginia Board of Medicine can treat with cannabidiol or THC-A oil” While marijuana laws are progressing for most states in the U.S., taking the step to stop prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana possession will show that Harrisonburg is at the forefront of this movement in Virginia. This demonstrates that Harrisonburg is passionate about taking efforts to destigmatize responsible cannabis use and free up resources within Virginia’s criminal justice system.
- In Virginia, it costs $25,129 every year to keep one person in jail.
- Receiving a drug conviction can derail an individual’s path to completing higher education, obtaining a stable job, and contributing to their community as a taxpayer.
- Research finds those sentenced to prison have higher rates of recidivism and recidivate more quickly than those who do not serve prison sentences.
- It is automatically assumed considering trend and overall sentiment, with 33 states having legalized marijuana in some form, and the majority of Americans supporting marijuana legalization , that marijuana arrests will automatically decline. However a proactive approach needs to be taken. Despite changing perceptions, arrests for marijuana in Virginia have only gone up. Marijuana arrests in Virginia have rose to its highest levels in a decade, with over 25,000 arrests made in 2017.
- To jail an inmate, the average cost to Virginia taxpayers comes out to $79.28 per day, per inmate. In state tuition for a year at James Madison University is just over $10,000, while the inmate sticker tag comes out to $11,892 for 150 days in prison (the average length of a school year).
- Over 3/4ths of Americans believe that even if marijuana is not legalized, there should be no jail time for low level possession misdemeanors.
- Every marijuana charge costs the state at least $750.
- Social costs of a marijuana criminalization
- A student receiving federal financial aid can have their FAFSA eligibility revoked due to a marijuana conviction.
- Some policies permanently exclude people with a drug arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities. These include barriers to voting, employment, loans, financial aid, child custody, public housing and other public assistance. Such barriers are discriminatory, like marijuana enforcement itself.
- A marijuana arrest affects more than just the individual charged- it can have devastating effects on an entire family- 1 in 9 black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.
- Virginia higher education institutions ask about drug convictions, with some institutions asking about every single arrest. This limits an individual’s ability to better themselves through higher learning.
- Recidivism is rampant, with over 3/4ths of drug offenders being re-arrested.
- Racial disparities in marijuana arrests
- Black people are approximately 4x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
- People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations.
- Marijuana criminalization disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities, including aggressive policing tactics leading to disproportionate arrests which persist even after states legalize but fail to alter enforcement practices.
- Having a criminal record severely impacts opportunities for career and education growth.
Current progress of cannabis legislation and in the state of Virginia
- 2018 Federal Farm Bill
- Medical Marijuana in Virginia
Benefits of Policy Change
- Places that have legalized marijuana have seen an overall crime drop.
- This policy change would free up resources within the judicial system, allowing more time and money to be allocated to more serious offenses.
What can the city council do?
Although city council cannot change the Virginia law of misdemeanor possession of marijuana less than half an ounce of weed, city council can determine that there is no room in the budget to prosecute for this offense.
The city of Harrisonburg is unique as it’s Commonwealth Attorney’s office has jurisdiction over both the town of Harrisonburg and the surrounding county of Rockingham, Virginia. This means when influencing the budget of the CA’s office we not only have to engage in a a dialogue with the Harrisonburg City Council, but the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors as well.
How have other cities done this?
- In 2003, Seattle passed an initiative to make marijuana enforcement the city’s lowest priority.Initiative 75 limited the amount of time police were allowed enforce marijuana possession laws. This shifted the focus of law enforcement to emphasize the enforcement of more serious crimes.
- In 2004, Oakland approved Measure Z, which forced the Oakland Police Department to make enforcing cannabis laws the lowest priority of the department. The measure also mandated “to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis for adult use, so as to keep it off the streets and away from children and to raise revenue for the city, as soon as possible under state law.”
- Norfolk’s court attorney supports the decriminalization of marijuana, but Norfolk judges and law enforcement do not. Commonwealth Attorney Greg Underwood was adamant about trying to drop marijuana misdemeanors, essentially decriminalizing marijuana. He believes that marijuana prosecution disproportionately affects people of color and is not an effective means of ensuring public safety. In contrast, the judges blocked these attempts to drop cases, uniting to support anti-marijuana measures.It is not normal for judges to take this type of uniformed stance.
Current Laws and Penalties in Virginia
- <1/2oz (1st offense): Misdemeanor, 30 days incarceration, max $500 fine
- <1/2oz (subsequent offense): Misdemeanor, 1 year incarceration, max $2,500 fine
- 1/2oz-5lbs: Felony, 1-10 years incarceration (1 year minimum), max $2,500 fine
- 5lbs-100kg: Felony, 5-30 years incarceration (5 year minimum), max $1,000 fine
- >100kg: Felony, 20 years-life incarceration (20 year minimum), max $100,000 fine
- Sale to a minor at least 3 years younger: Felony, 2-50 years incarceration (2 year minimum), max $100,000 fine
- Sale within 100ft of a school or school bus stop: Felony, 1-5 years incarceration (1 year minimum), max $100,000 fine
- Manufacture of Marijuana: Felony, 5-30 years incarceration (5 year minimum), max $10,000 fine
- Transportation of >5lbs into the state: Felony, 5-40 years incarceration (5 year minimum), max $1,000,000 fine
- Hash and Concentrates
- Possession of hashish oil: Felony, 1-10 years incarceration, max $2,500 fine
- Manufacturing, giving, distributing, or possessing with intent: Felony, 5-40 years incarceration, max $500,000 fine
- Bringing >1oz hashish oil into the state: Felony, 5-40 years incarceration, max $1,000,000 fine
- Sale or possession with intent to sell paraphernalia: Misdemeanor, 1 year incarceration, max $2,500 fine
- Sale of paraphernalia to minor at least 3 years younger: Felony, 1 year incarceration, max $2,500 fine
- Civil Asset Forfeiture
- “Vehicles and other assets can be seized in a civil proceeding, regardless of whether criminal charges are brought
- Miscellaneous Charges
- Maintaining a fortified drug house: Felony, 1-10 years incarceration (1 year minimum)
According to Jail Captain Weimer, there is currently no one incarcerated for solely simple possession of marijuana in the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail. This does not count into people who have simple possession as well as other charges. However, the Commonwealth Attorney’s office (of both Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City) has confirmed with us they prosecute for simple possession.
How You Can Take Action!
Live in Harrisonburg?
- Regularly attend city council meetings and county board meetings
- Contact City Council members
- Join Harrisonburg NORML
Go To JMU?
- Join the JMU Students for Sensible Drug Policy
- Table to encourage people to sign petitions that support marijuana reform
If you are a resident of Virginia and have been impacted by simple possession laws, let your story be known by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
- Vera Institute. 2012. “The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers” (<https://www.vera.org/publications/price-of-prisons-what-incarceration-costs-taxpayers>
- Spohn, Cassia and Hollerman, David. 2002. “The Effect of Imprisonment on Recidivism Rates: A Focus on Drug Offenders.” Criminology. Vol 40 (2) < https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2002.tb00959.x>
- Drug Policy Alliance. <http://www.drugpolicy.org/issues/race-and-drug-war>
- Drug Policy Alliance. 2018. “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race.” <http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/drug-war-mass-incarceration-and-race-englishspanish>