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Virginia Lawmakers Hit Impasse Over Releasing Cannabis Prisoners After Legalization

In Virginia, the fate of people incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes is still up in the air.

On Monday, Virginia’s Cannabis Oversight Commission, a panel of lawmakers charged with making legislative recommendations for this year’s session, proposed speeding up the launch of recreational weed sales by one full year to 2023.

But the 10-member commission couldn’t come to an agreement on what to do about the hundreds of people serving time for weed offenses – even after Virginia legalized pot use and possession. Last year, lawmakers left out any resentencing provisions from the legalization bill that went into effect on July 1.

At the center of the debate on Monday was whether some inmates with cannabis offenses should be released automatically or granted a resentencing hearing.

Lawmakers heard a report from Tama Seli, research director for Virginia’s Department of Corrections (VDOC), who offered statistics on people incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes. Seli said that 570 inmates – or 1.8% of the state’s carceral population – are convicted of a cannabis offense. Of those inmates, roughly 58% (331) are also convicted for trafficking a more serious drug, while 40% (229) are convicted for a more serious offense not related to drugs.

Only 10 people are incarcerated solely for a cannabis crime, according to the VDOC report.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who chairs the commission, asked lawmakers to weigh in on a bill recently introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) to allow people with cannabis convictions to petition for a resentencing hearing.

But the proposal didn’t sit well with Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), who asked why the 10 inmates locked up only for cannabis wouldn’t be released on the spot.

“I would assume that your bill would immediately release those 10 people now,” said Scott, who spent seven years in prison on drug charges before becoming a criminal defense attorney.

Ebbin said the bill “wouldn’t automatically release anyone,” cautioning Scott that those inmates were trafficking large amounts of cannabis.

“Keep in mind these are not for people who just possessed less than an ounce,” he said. “Some of them may have imported 5 pounds of marijuana into the commonwealth, which is still a crime now.”

Under Virginia’s new legalization laws, it’s legal to possess small amounts of cannabis, but carrying more than one ounce is punishable by a civil penalty of $25, and any amount above a pound is considered a felony.

“That’s why we tend to lean towards being able to petition for the resentence, rather than an automatic result,” Ebbin said.

Scott wasn’t convinced. “I will not be in favor of any bill that doesn’t call for immediate release of those 10 folks,” he said.

“I just visited a medical provider last week and there were thousands of pounds in there, so yeah, I think those people deserve an opportunity to come home,” he added.

The VDOT report accounted only for “state-responsible” inmates – those convicted of at least a felony or a one-year sentence. That led some lawmakers to ask whether any “local-responsible inmates” – people serving shorter sentences for misdemeanors in local facilities – were convicted of cannabis offenses.

Seli said she didn’t have that data, but that she assumed local-responsible inmates convicted of a cannabis misdemeanor before legalization would by now have been released.

Scott questioned that assumption.

“I just visited some guys on Friday that are doing way more than a year, and they’re in local jails and have been for over a year because of COVID, so I don’t think that answer is accurate right now.”

The committee concluded its final meeting without making recommendations on resentencing or release for cannabis prisoners, leaving the debate for the regular legislative session.

“If you or other members of this committee are interested in the bill further, we can talk about it offline as well,” said Ebbin.

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