As millions of Americans from every corner of the country flood the streets to protest against the over-policing of black and brown communities, the Virginia Senate has approved a bill that would greatly advance that cause. Introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, Senate Bill 5029 would prohibit police search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. The legislation, which passed with a 21-15 vote, has been lauded by activists who say it is a small step towards ending the aggressive over policing certain communities have had to endure for decades.
“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” says Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit that is pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana. Even after the state decriminalized marijuana back in July, she says, police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana have continued to adversely affect minority groups.
According to 2018 data from the ACLU, black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people. “The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise says. She adds that although there is still a long way to go before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.
Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in Virginia will result in a $25 civil penalty. Before the state decriminalized marijuana, possession for having up to half an ounce would have resulted in a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail. She says that true reform would require the clearing of records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine. “ALL of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police.”
However, not everyone agrees with Higgs Wise. The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police has stated its opposition to the bill, with Executive Director Dana Schrad saying that “enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists.”
Though the process of rolling back decades of marijuana prohibition is slow, analysts believe that sector players like The Alkaline Water Company Inc. (CSE: WTER) (NASDAQ: WTER) celebrate every success scored in chipping away at the legacy of the war on drugs.
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