RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.
Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed with a 21-15 vote.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana, said her group is excited to see the bill move forward.
“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.
Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people, according to 2018 data from the ACLU. Even after marijuana was decriminalized in July, Higgs Wise said police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana continue to adversely affect minority groups.
“The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise said.
Higgs Wise said there is still “a long way to go” before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, but right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.
Marijuana decriminalization legislation approved by the General Assembly earlier this year went into effect in July. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana results in a $25 civil penalty, reduced from a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail for having up to half an ounce.
Higgs Wise said true reform goes further; clearing records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine.
“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said.
Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said the organization opposes the bill.
“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” Schrad said in an email.
Other amendments in the bill reduce certain traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses, which Schrad said could make it difficult for officers to issue citations on the road and creates risks for other drivers.
The bill, and another…