After a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion of marijuana policy, the Charlottesville City Council voted Monday night to approve a resolution calling on the state of Virginia to revisit its pot possession policies.
Councilors were split on the issue, with some voicing concerns about whether a broader resolution that defined marijuana possession as a low priority for police would send the wrong message to children.
At least two councilors supported the stronger resolution, but they picked up the third vote needed by narrowing the resolution down to a single paragraph.
The council voted 3-2 to “call on the Virginia General Assembly and the Governor of Virginia to revisit the sentencing guidelines that merit jail terms for simple possession, do away with rules that suppose intent to distribute without evidence and give due consideration to sponsored state bills that would decriminalize, legalize or regulate marijuana like alcohol.”
“I think it’s perfectly legitimate for us to say as an elected body that there are other priorities and that we’re going the wrong direction when it comes to the war on drugs,” said Councilor Dave Norris.
“Obviously, we don’t have the power to decriminalize marijuana, but I think it does send the message actually in support of those who can,” said Councilor Dede Smith.
“I think that decriminalization has more to with regulation and control than it does with saying it’s OK,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos, the swing vote who suggested the one-paragraph compromise.
Mayor Satyendra Huja and Councilor Kathy Galvin opposed the original resolution, and voted no on the single-paragraph version.
“I think passing such a resolution … would detract from community health, safety and welfare of our citizens,” said Huja.
“I honestly cannot think that this bully pulpit can be used to send such mixed messages to our children,” said Galvin. “… We are spending a lot of time talking about state and federal law. This is not something we should be spending local time doing.”
Galvin suggested she might support the single paragraph if minor tweaks were made, but said all her concerns couldn’t be soothed Monday night.
The city police department suggested councilors defer action on the deprioritization measure.
“The officers in the police department are duty bound to enforce the laws of the city, state and federal governments. However, all police departments must balance the pressing enforcement needs of a community with their resources,” read a memo to councilors from City Manager Maurice Jones and city Police Chief Timothy J. Longo. “The Charlottesville Police Department has done exactly that by utilizing its funding to appropriately address higher priority crimes in our city than marijuana possession. Knowing this, staff believes it is unnecessary to include a directive from council to de-prioritize the enforcement of personal marijuana use.”
City officials insist marijuana possession is already a low priority. Statistics provided by the police department show that the city doled out 113 charges for marijuana possession in 2011, or roughly 2.2 percent of the 5,040 total charges for the year. Over the past five years, the city has averaged nearly 100 possession charges per year, with no major trends in either direction.
“They’re not huge numbers,” Longo said at the meeting.
The police department’s records system cannot distinguish whether marijuana possession was a primary or secondary charge in those cases, but officials claim that a “great majority” of the possession charges occurred when police found pot while making an arrest on another charge.
“Statistically, I don’t think we have an argument here that it’s taxing the resources of law enforcement,” Longo said.
Under Virginia law, possession of marijuana is classified as a misdemeanor carrying punishment of up to 30 days in jail and/or fines of up to $500. Subsequent convictions carry a jail sentence of up to a year and/or fines of up to $2,500.
The City Hall memo also includes statistics intended to show that people charged with marijuana possession are more likely to be convicted of another crime and less likely to successfully complete probation.
Based on data covering three years, the probation success rate for marijuana-possession cases was 69 percent, compared with 85 percent for all cases. The re-conviction rate for marijuana-possession cases was 42 percent, compared with 24 percent for all cases.
“As evidenced by the data there is concern that the notion of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana may well have an impact on both mental and public health resources; thus, we would strongly encourage that before council takes any action on this matter that those resources be consulted and their opinions carefully considered,” the memo concludes.
When the public comment period opened Monday night, six consecutive people speaking on the marijuana issue urged councilors to vote against the resolution.
Many of those opposed to the resolution described their struggles with addiction, characterizing marijuana as an insidious drug that robs addicts of personal responsibility and true happiness. Others were more blunt.
“Charlottesville will become the city of potheads,” said city resident Melanie Roberts.
Former tea party leader Carole Thorpe, speaking on her own behalf, warned the council against politicizing the police department, likening to the situation to what she described as a lack of law enforcement — at councilors’ direction — during the Occupy Charlottesville encampment in Lee Park.
“Whether the majority political orientation of our governing party is Democrat or Republican … I see a great danger in that body using the police department in any manner to promote its political agenda or fight the other side,” Thorpe said.
Local attorney Jeff Fogel rejected Thorpe’s conclusion, saying city voters elect council representatives to reflect local priorities regardless of what police headquarters may want.
“I don’t think we elected the police department to make policy or law in this community,” Fogel said. “And you know what, I’m not sure the police department does either.”
Fogel called the war on drugs a “colossal failure” that leads to violence in the streets.
The idea for the resolution was brought to the council by Jordan McNeish, a 23-year-old activist formerly involved with the Occupy Charlottesville movement who has since founded a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. McNeish has openly acknowledged that he has had past legal trouble involving marijuana possession.
Though a resolution was passed, councilors stressed that marijuana is still illegal in the city of Charlottesville.