Marijuana arrests in Virginia have been on the decline over the past few years, reflecting the fact that some prosecutors in the state are seeing it as less of a priority; after all, the state has not legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, which would account for a steep drop.
According to stats from the Virginia State Police, marijuana arrests dropped 14% from 2013 to 2015 and arrests are on pace to fall even more in 2016. That’s the largest drop in a 2-year period in the state in 15 years.
From 2011 to 2015 the city of Newport News, VA saw a decrease in marijuana arrests of 60%. Experts credit the decline to police being less aggressive with marijuana users, police who are taking their cue from prosecutors who are being less aggressive as well. In fact, in some jurisdictions there was a lack of a prosecutor assigned to marijuana cases.
“Certainly locally here in Newport News, the absence of a prosecuting attorney to help the officers with marijuana charges has had a significant and adverse impact on the officers’ ability to make those cases,” Newport News Police Chief Richard Myers said. “And we know with certainty that that has contributed significantly with each passing year to the decrease in our marijuana cases.”
Without a prosecuting attorney, misdemeanor marijuana arrests become a pile of paperwork that just isn’t worth it, especially considering all the felonies there are to track down and solve. But if that is the major reason for the decline, then the declines may soon be reversed as cities like Hampton and Newport News have hired new prosecutors to take on the marijuana workload.
But some speculate that the drop in arrests may be more than just a practical matter of resources. Ron Smith, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Hampton, thinks marijuana laws could soon go the way of adultery laws in the state: still active but not enforced. “Virginia changes the law very gradually, and you can feel it happening,” he said. “Even if they don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s legal,’ you can see that slow pull, that slow walk toward legalization.”
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a limited “CBD-only” bill can become law next year in Virginia. “The Virginia General Assembly ended its 2016 legislative session by approving SB 701 — a cannabis oil bill — which Gov. Terry McAuliffe did not veto. This limited bill allows the cultivation of cannabis by pharmaceutical processors that would then produce cannabidiol oil. Patients suffering from intractable epilepsy could receive the oil with a written certification from their doctors. Unfortunately, epileptic patients won’t receive any benefit until at least 2017, as the bill requires a second passage next year.”
Hopefully arrests will continue to decline until voters in Virginia eventually get to decide on legalization for all adults.