Drug Bills in the Virginia Legislature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 2/2/01

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As the two houses of the Virginia legislature, the GOP-dominated Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates, roll up their sleeves for the Old Dominion's brief and frenzied legislative session, they confront a raft of drug-policy related bills and resolutions.

On one side, representatives have introduced bills that would require Virginia state police to keep racial profiling statistics and would reduce the penalty for first-time marijuana possession, and a number of resolutions expressing the sense of the assembly on drug policy issues have also been introduced.

At the same time, drug policy hard-liners have introduced proposals to extend the drug war and further punish its victims.

For Lennice Werth of Virginians Against Drug Violence (http://www.drugsense.org/dpfva/), the diverging policy proposals mean another session in the trenches.

"These bills are a real mixed bag," she told DRCNet, "it's going to be a weird year for us. How do you deal with someone who wants to make selling urine or spray paint a crime?"

Werth was referring to House Bill 2478, which would make it a misdemeanor "for a person to distribute or market urine in the Commonwealth or transport urine into the Commonwealth with the intent of using the urine to defeat a drug or alcohol screening test." Its companion, Senate Bill 508, makes a misdemeanant out of any store clerk who sells inhalants to a minor he "knows or has reason to know will be inhaled or smelled by the minor to intoxicate, inebriate, excite, stupefy or to dull his brain or nervous system."

"The urine replacement bill is a bad bill, but we'll be lucky to stop it," Werth said. "It passed out of committee in the House this week, it'll be difficult to stop in the House, and even more difficult in the Senate."

"We need help on this one," she said.

There will also be a fight over penalties for marijuana possession. Senate Bill 1400, "a destructive holdover from last year," as Werth puts it, would raise simple possession to a class one misdemeanor and allow judges to suspend drivers' licenses for up to a year. But House Bill 2751 moves in the opposite direction; it would reduce penalties for first-time offenders from 100 hours of community service to 24 hours.

Unhappily for marijuana reform advocates, the bill has been referred to the dreaded House Committee on Militia and Police. This week Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher described the committee as "the killing field" or "the place bills go to die."

He quoted Delegate Karen Darner (D-Arlington) on the committee's function. "Anything the Speaker wants killed, he sends there," she said.

Some favorable bills and resolutions that have not yet been assigned such a dire fate include:

  • House Joint Resolution 673, which expresses the sense of the legislature that the drug war sacrifices the rights of all. The resolution calls on the Virginia Attorney General to educate citizens about the rights guaranteed through the US and Virginia constitutions.
  • House Joint Resolution 605, which calls for legalization of industrial hemp.
  • House Joint Resolution 687, which calls for a rewrite of the criminal code regarding sentencing for drugs and other offenses.
There is danger as well as opportunity any time sentences are being debated, and reformers already have to fend off a measure, Senate Bill 1178, that would ratchet up penalties for methamphetamine offenses to equal the state's harsh cocaine penalties. But the indefatigable Werth is optimistic. "We are well positioned to work within this process to affect some very desirable reforms," she said. "I'll be there to testify for that."

"And against the Archie Bunker bill, I suppose," she sighed. That bill, introduced in both houses, is named after the character played by actor Carroll O'Connor, who embraced such tactics after his drug-using son committed suicide. It would make any drug seller civilly liable for financial and emotional damage suffered by any user of drugs.

Time is short, said Werth. "This is a whirlwind session; it'll be over in early March. If you can help, now is the time."

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Issue #171, 2/2/01 Drug Arrests on New Jersey Highways in Freefall in Wake of Racial Profiling Scandal | Sen. Dodd Introduces Bill to Suspend Certification Process, Supports Move Toward Multilateral Drug War Evaluation Mechanism | Interview: Sanho Tree on Colombia | And the Meaning of Traffic Is...? | Drug Testing Declines Among Private Employers, but Testing Industry is Ready to Fight | Drug Bills in the Virginia Legislature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | Decriminalization and Medical Marijuana Bills Introduced in New Mexico Legislature | Newsbrief: US 9th Circuit Court Tosses Out HUD "One Strike and You're Out" Eviction Policy | Newsbrief: MS Sufferer Guilty in DC Medical Marijuana Case | The Reformer's Calendar: Portland, Philadelphia, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi | Editorial: Moving Forward with Open Eyes

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