Over the past 10 years, Virginia authorities have arrested more than 133,000 people suspected of marijuana possession. Each year, about 10,000 individuals are convicted of a first-time marijuana possession offense. And on one day in July 2017, there were 127 individuals in jail on a marijuana charge alone, costing Virginia taxpayers more than $10,000 a day.
Those are among the findings of a report on marijuana decriminalization prepared by the Virginia State Crime Commission ahead of consideration of proposed legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in the state. The bills would not legalize marijuana outright but would make possession of small quantities of marijuana a civil offense punishable via a fine, similar to a traffic ticket. Under current Virginia law, a first marijuana offense can be punished by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
In practice, according to the State Crime Commission’s report, relatively few people are jailed for marijuana offenses. Jail time is often waived for first-time offenders, and only about 31 percent of subsequent marijuana offenses are punished with jail sentences.
Among the 127 inmates jailed in Virginia on marijuana charges on July 20, 2017, more than three-quarters of them – 96 – were still awaiting their day in court. The remaining 31 marijuana inmates had been charged and convicted. The average per-inmate cost to taxpayers to jail an inmate in Virginia was $79.28 per day.
Thousands of Virginians are convicted of marijuana possession offenses each year, and the number is growing: In fiscal 2008, there were 6,533 convictions for first-time marijuana possession in Virginia. The preliminary numbers for fiscal 2017 show more than 10,000 such convictions.
Those convictions, regardless of whether they result in jail time, can be devastating, according to the report. They can result in loss of a job or a security clearance, suspension of federal student aid, difficulty obtaining housing, and issues with professional licensing and child custody disputes.
There’s also the financial cost to consider. “A first time marijuana offender represented by court-appointed counsel can expect to pay approximately $400 to $800 in costs and fees,” according to the report. Failure to pay those fees can result in additional fines and snowballing legal debt.
The burden of marijuana enforcement in Virginia falls disproportionately on young black men, according to the report. African-Americans make up about 20 percent of the population in Virginia but account for 45.5 percent of marijuana possession arrests. Nationally, blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.
Nationally, 22 states plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana. In a 2016 survey, 78 percent of Virginians said they favored decriminalizing marijuana, and 62 percent supported outright legalization of recreational use.
In preparing the report, the Virginia State Crime Commission received 3,850 written comments on marijuana decriminalization from the public. More than 97 percent of them were in support of the policy.