RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Despite arguments that decriminalization would help combat racial disparities in marijuana arrests, court data shows that Black people in Virginia are roughly four times more likely to be cited for simple possession than white people since the policy took effect in July.

Just over 4,500 people in Virginia were charged with simple possession in general district courts across the commonwealth from July 1, 2020 to Jan. 11, 2021. Court records from the state’s Office of the Executive Secretary, obtained by Justice Forward Virginia’s policy director Bryan Kennedy and independently reviewed by 8News, revealed that 52% of those people were Black and 45% were white.

Court records show that 22 Asians and two people who identified as Native American were also cited for simple possession in that time, with 116 people listed under “unknown” also receiving a summons.

According to 2019 census estimates, Black people make up nearly 20% of the state’s population while white residents make up almost 70%. Using those figures, the rate at which Black people in Virginia received citations for possession is 137.5 per 100,000 and the rate for white people is 34.2 per 100,000.

These numbers are similar to arrest rates before decriminalization, with court records showing Black people in Virginia accounted for 51% of the nearly 32,000 marijuana cases in 2019. White people made up 46% of those cases.

“Black Virginians comprise a disproportionately high percentage of individuals arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses. From 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black individuals for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals (and significantly higher than arrest rates for other racial or ethnic groups),” said a report released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) in November. “Black individuals were also convicted at a much higher rate—3.9 times higher than white individuals.”

While Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary does gather records from courts and magistrate offices, it does not track ethnicity, leaving no way to determine data for Latinos or other ethnicities.

Lawmakers approved decriminalization last year to remove harsher penalties for simple possession of marijuana, up to an ounce in Virginia, and instead impose a $25 civil penalty for a first offense.

The effort, seen as a stepping stone towards legalization, was pushed to address persistent racial disparities in arrests even though data shows similar rates of marijuana use between Black and white Virginians.

Advocates for criminal justice reform and racial equity called on lawmakers to repeal the penalty for simple possession in July 2020 during negotiations over marijuana legalization, arguing the disproportionate rates of summons for Black people demonstrated that racial disparities still exist with decriminalization.

In the end, negotiators in the Virginia Senate and House decided to get rid of the penalty when legal sales are expected to begin on Jan. 1, 2024, and the General Assembly voted to send the legalization bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

“The [Northam] administration let us down,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, the executive director of Marijuana Justice, said in an interview Tuesday. “The priority for racial equity was a lie.”

Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice, have called on Northam to amend the bill to repeal the penalty. The governor’s office said Northam “looks forward to continuing to improve” the legislation in a statement Monday but it appears unlikely that any change to the civil penalty will take place.

Concern for Virginia’s youth

The bill passed in this year’s legislative session will legalize marijuana, recreational use and simple possession, for Virginians 21 and over in 2024. It also includes provisions for another JLARC study, requirements to educate consumers on cannabis and limiting advertisements to prevent companies from targeting the youth. 

Hundreds of Virginians under the age of 18 were cited for simple possession from July and Jan. 11. Seventy-five of them were white and 46 were Black, according to data on juvenile court records. 

RISE for Youth and other statewide advocacy groups shared their concerns with the compromise lawmakers reached before the final vote was tallied, calling it “worse than the status quo.”

Valerie Slater, the executive director of RISE for Youth, said she’s grateful the agreement did not include a possible $250 fine for those under the age of 21, as the Senate’s bill had, but instead had language in the House’s version that makes a $25 fine the stiffest penalty. 

Those under age who purchase or possess cannabis could be ordered to begin an education program, enter substance abuse treatment or both.

Slater questioned the harsher penalty for people convicted of possessing marijuana on school grounds, a possible Class 2 misdemeanor under the compromise, arguing it could lead to the criminalization of Virginia’s youth.

“It [the bill] does not make a distinction on who can be charged,” she told 8News on Tuesday. “That is stiff. It’s going to be kids who make that stupid mistake.”

Key components of the legislation, including the regulatory structure for legal sales and the criminal penalties people can face, will have to be voted on in the General Assembly next year under the compromise lawmakers reached.

Where people are being cited for marijuana possession

Not all localities in Virginia are issuing citations for simple possession of marijuana, Charlottesville being one, whereas some have issued hundreds from July to Jan. 11. Nearly 600 citations were issued in Chesterfield, the most in the commonwealth, and Hanover County had over 250 citations in that time, data shows.

Even though African Americans make up roughly a quarter of Chesterfield’s population and just 9.5% of Hanover’s, more than 60% of the cases in the counties involve Black people. According to 8News’ analysis of the court record data, Hanover had one of the highest per capita rates for citations in the commonwealth and Black people were more than 15 times as likely to face summons in Hanover courts than white people.

Lt. James R. Cooper, the public information officer for the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, said Wednesday that decriminalization has not been in effect long enough for any key takeaways to be determined.

“It’s still too early, it’s too early,” Lt. Cooper said when asked what the data could mean.

Advocates critical of the civil penalty argue that Black people are more likely to be searched when pulled over by police, leading to the disproportionate rate of citations for marijuana possession. Lt. Cooper says while many of these cases come as a result of traffic stops, “a large number” are from secondary offenses after someone has been arrested and searched.

Cooper said once new laws are put into effect, such as decriminalization, those in the sheriff’s office must go through the details of the legal changes in mandatory training sessions.

Law enforcement officials noted that citations in a locality’s court system can come from a variety of sources, not just local police departments. A Chesterfield police spokeswoman, Elizabeth Caroon, told 8News in an email that the county’s numbers include citations issued by Virginia State Police and also possibly Virginia State University Police.

In total, Chesterfield police wrote 463 summonses for simple possession of marijuana in the first six months of decriminalization, according to numbers provided by Caroon. She noted that the number is lower than the DUI arrests the department made in that time frame, 649, and just a small fraction of the more than 21,000 arrests made in the six-month span.