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Virginia Police Report Shows Large Drop In Cannabis Arrests For 2020, But Omits Breakdown By Race


Roughly one year after Virginia decriminalized cannabis, pot arrests have almost been slashed in half in the commonwealth, according to an annual crime report released last week by state police. 

Cannabis arrests dropped by about 48% in 2020, decreasing to 13,640 incidents from 26,470 the previous year, the report shows. Arrests had peaked at nearly 29,000 in 2018, prompting calls to reform Virginia’s cannabis laws.

In May of 2020, following a bipartisan effort by state lawmakers, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law that reduced the possession of small amounts of cannabis to a non-arrestable offense punishable by a $25 ticket.

The Virginia State Police (VSP) report ties the decrease in cannabis arrests directly to decriminalization: “The number of reports of drugs seized decreased for nearly all drug types, especially marijuana, due in large part to decriminalization of the drug effective July 1, 2020,” the report says.

But some advocates argue the drop doesn’t tell the whole story. The VSP report doesn’t include a breakdown of cannabis arrests by racial demographics.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director at Marijuana Justice, told The Outlaw Report that despite decriminalization, Virginia police continue to disproportionately enforce cannabis laws against Black people.

“Virginia State Police releasing the latest crime report, but omitting racial demographics, continues the Commonwealth’s 402-year-old legacy of erasing the Black experience and painting us as deserving of this racist enforcement,” said Higgs Wise. “It should horrify every Virginian to know that our elected officials are voting on legislation with such large gaps of information missing that impact an already disenfranchised community.”

Higgs Wise called the move to exclude racial demographics in the recently released police report a “red flag.” She called on Virginia to stop relying on state police to analyze crime statistics. 

In February, a report by Virginia Public Media (VPM) found that Black people were nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for pot. The analysis showed that, six months after Virginia decriminalized pot, about 50% of people arrested for possession were Black, though Black Virginians make up just 20% of the state’s population.

“Disparate enforcement at any level allows for the continued extraction of resources from our Black communities specifically through fines, court fees and the inevitable jail and prison sentences,” Higgs Wise said.

In many states, simple cannabis possession remains the most common kind of drug arrest, far outpacing police stops for other, more dangerous substances.

Close to half of Virginia’s drug arrests (46%) were for cannabis in 2020, compared to about 57% for the previous year, according to VSP’s crime report. Young adults continue to be most affected by cannabis laws, with people between the ages of 18 and 24 making up 44% of all arrests in 2020.

Starting July 1, owning and growing small amounts of cannabis will be legal in Virginia following the passage of new cannabis legislation in April. However, possessing more than one ounce will still be punishable by a $25 fine, and amounts upwards of one pound will result in a felony.

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