This legislative session, Virginia has rapidly moved along with cannabis reform, decriminalizing cannabis possession up to an ounce, establishing the framework for medicinal cannabis, and regulating CBD food products. The Outlaw Report has noted how in a matter of a few months, it seems as though Virginia is catching up with many of nearby Maryland’s cannabis policies, but it is important to note that Virginia remains for the time being at least, a state dogged by a drug warrior mentality.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s recent report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” analyzed cannabis arrests state-by-state and compared arrests of white people and black people, and showed that in Virginia, a black person is 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than a white person. That is slightly below the national average of 3.6. Virginia has also seen its rate of black arrests compared to white arrests per 100,000 people increase over the past few years—as compared to 2010—and features some counties where the likelihood of arrest if you are black is dramatically high: nearly 21% in Hanover County, 16% in Smyth County, 12% in Washington County, and nearly 10% in Augusta and Arlington Counties.
As the Washington Post reported, Virginia cannabis arrests were at their highest in 20 years back in 2019. And as The Outlaw Report reported last month, back at the beginning of March when Virginia’s legislators were working through the ins and outs of decriminalization, a court of appeals opinion ruled that it was “common sense” that a Virginia man who back in 2016, was detained and had his house searched because of a burning joint.
Another more anecdotal way to understand Virginia law enforcement’s approach to cannabis is looking at how cannabis arrests are covered by the news. That is because drug arrests only make the news when law enforcement provide these stories to the news or the news aggregates them via law enforcement-penned press releases, as Adam Johnson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) wrote in 2018’s “Publishing Police Press Releases as Local ‘Crime’ Reporting.”
A quick perusal of 2020 local news coverage throughout the state shows that Virginia law enforcement is still touting big pot busts and even common cannabis arrests. Just last week, on May 1, the story of a routine cannabis arrest in Ashburn, VA made the news: The man was stopped for erratic driving and charged with cannabis possession and driving while intoxicated.
There are many arrests like it getting coverage. A car crash that resulted in no injuries in February lead to a man being arrested for cannabis possession. A dealer with a few dozen pills and a pound of weed. Three men arrested by a Drug Task Force for having five pounds of cannabis. A Roanoke grow room discovered was estimated by cops at being worth $150,000. A house party in Morgantown, VA in April was broken up by police for violating social distancing orders and a number of people present were cited for cannabis possession.
Here are three of the most egregious arrests publicized by local news that The Outlaw Report found.
In late January, police with a search warrant entered a Falls Church, VA man’s home because he was suspected of “marijuana distribution”—when they entered, police claimed he was holding a gun and the man was shot.
An Ashburn, VA man was pulled over in February after a state trooper stopped him for a traffic signal violation. The officer then claimed he could smell cannabis and asked the man to get out of his car. The man sped-off, striking two cars before he finally stopped and was arrested.
In April, a Lamsburg, VA man was charged with firearm possession and felony-level possession of cannabis—the result of a welfare check on the man, who was parked in front of a Dollar General Store for quite some time during COVID-19 where social distancing is encouraged and jails are considered hotbeds for infection (he was arrested and held without bail).
Until July 1 of this year, cannabis possession arrests in Virginia can continue (and some of the arrests above are beyond the one ounce decriminalization threshold anyway). And a major reason for pushing decriminalization and legalization is decreasing police ability to arrest people for cannabis. But moving into Virginia’s decriminalization era, monitoring how arrests and busts are publicized offers a glimpse into law enforcement’s attitudes toward cannabis.