While cannabis enthusiasts around the state are celebrating the early days of marijuana legalization, weed arrests in Petersburg have been in decline over the last five years.
The city saw a spike in drug arrests in 2018 and 2019, in which over 500 arrests were made each before sharply declining in 2020. Petersburg Police Department reported a record number of 197 drug arrests to state police for last year. The police department hasn’t seen a number that low since 2015.
“It is a win because it eliminates the disproportionate penalizing against black people,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice.
Virginia State Police reported a 36.7% decrease in drug arrests, with marijuana arrests dropping over 30% from last year. Similar to Petersburg, the state’s number of marijuana arrests are on the rise up until 2020.
Virginia is the first state in the south to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Despite making up about 20% of the state’s population, Black people account for over 40 percent of drug offenders for 2020, according to state police data. In fact, Black people in Virginia are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in comparison to their white counterparts, as noted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
A recent study done by a Virginia public radio station stated that even after the decriminalization of cannabis in 2020, Black people were still four times more likely than white people to face repercussions over marijuana possession despite having similar usage rates.
Marijuana Justice, an anti-cannabis criminalization nonprofit, has been working on campaigning for the repeal of the prohibition of possession. This year’s victory may be a win for the group, but Higgs Wise says the organization will continue to apply pressure until Black people aren’t punished so severely for a legalized crime.
“Even when Virginia decriminalized it in 2020, we knew it wasn’t enough,” said Higgs Wise. “… Legalizing consumption is a social justice issue.”
Those who are currently serving time for marijuana-related crimes before July 2020, however, are still serving time for charges with little chance to serve a lesser sentence.
Black youth, said Higgs Wise, remain vulnerable against marijuana laws, even after the legalization of simple possession. The law only applies to people over the age of 21, leaving more consequences up for the possibility. According to the VSP data, individuals under the age of 24 account for about half of all marijuana arrests.
“They will still feel targeted and still feel the brunt of the laws, especially those under the age of 18,” said Higgs Wise.
Starting yesterday, Virginia residents 21 years old and older can do the following:
- Possessed up to four marijuana plants per house
- Possess up to one ounce of concealed marijuana
- Possess up to one ounce of marijuana, sealed and locked in the trunk when in a vehicle
- “Sharing” among adult users as long as no monetary transactions are made
The new legislation prohibits individuals from carrying and using cannabis in public areas and housing, schools and while driving. If one is found with more than an ounce, they are obligated to pay a civil penalty no more than $25.
“We’re looking forward to repealing more of the laws, resentencing those incarcerated as well as reinvesting the tax revenues equitably,” said Higgs Wise.
Tamica Jean-Charles covers all things social justice for the Progress-Index. You can find her on Twitter @thisistamica. You can also reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.