Smoke signals: Council passes part of pot resolution
City Council passed a resolution to ask the General Assembly to revisit marijuana laws and give consideration to decriminalization in a 3-2 vote Monday night, but backed off the rest of a measure that would have made enforcement of pot possession a low priority for police.
In a packed Council chamber, judging from applause levels, it appeared supporters of the resolution were in the majority, but the first six citizens to speak about the issue opposed it. One cited an addiction to pot for 17 years. Former Jefferson Area Tea Party chair Carol Thorpe urged councilors to support police and leave enforcement to the professionals– rather than instructing police Chief Tim Longo to not enforce the law as they did with Occupy Charlottesville protesters in Lee Park.
And city resident Naomi Roberts declared, "Charlottesville will become the city of potheads and bring more drug lords."
Civil rights attorney Jeffrey Fogel called the war on drugs "a massive and colossal failure," and suggested an ordinance in which Council prohibited the use of pot– and made sure no one goes to jail if convicted.
City Manager Maurice Jones pointed out that of 5,040 arrests police made last year, 113 of them were for marijuana possession.
"We don't spend a lot of resources on enforcing possession laws," Police Chief Tim Longo told the councilors, but said that wasn't a conscious prioritization.
His concerns were as a parent, and he cited a recent Partnership for a Drug Free America survey that found the number of teens who'd smoked pot in 2011 increased and the number of heavy-pot-smoking teens had jumped 80 percent.
Tom von Hemert with Offender Aid and Restoration noted that the National Association of Drug Courts opposed decriminalization. "The use of marijuana is very hard to give up," he said.
Ross Carew, assistant director of OAR, said, "The folks convicted [on marijuana charges] were second only to domestic violence in the risk of recidivism," and that convicted pot possessors had a 42 percent reconviction rate.
"This has been the cause of some heartburn and sleepless nights," said Councilor Kathy Galvin, the mother of 16- and 20-year-old sons."What does this say to school children?" she asked.
Galvin challenged the part of the resolution that said enforcement was a burden on police and that the health risks of marijuana were benign. She cited scientific evidence linking pot smoking and schizophrenia and noted that reefer holds 50 to 70 percent more carcinogens than cigarettes, raises the heart rate, and causes people to experience more health problems and miss more work.
She described the resolution as being only symbolic, and said, "Council is being used as a bully pulpit."
Mayor Satyendra Huja joined Galvin in voting against the resolution, relying, he said, on local experts who said long-term use can lead to addiction and produce psychosis. "More importantly," he said, "what kind of message are we sending to children?"
Councilors Dave Norris and Dede Smith supported the resolution.
Norris quoted a report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel that included former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State George Schultz: "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won."
He also told a story about his uncle, who suffered from cancer, and his grandmother obtained marijuana for him, but worried about scoring dope. "What's the appropriate sentence for my grandmother?" he asked.
Smith questioned the penalties for people caught with small amounts of marijuana that include loss of driving privileges for six months. "People's lives are impacted by a very small amount [of marijuana] they imbibe on occasion," she said.
"If it were legal, we'd have much more control," added Smith. "Because we don't, it's a black market."
Councilor Kristin Szakos was the swing vote on the resolution. She voiced concerns about racial disparity among those arrested and said they were four times more likely to be African American. She said she favored decriminalization, but had concerns about other parts of the resolution.
Szakos said she would support the final paragraph on the resolution, which asks the governor and General Assembly to revisit sentencing guidelines for simple possession and give consideration to state bills that would decriminalize, legalize, or regulate marijuana like alcohol.
"That would take it out of the criminal field and put it in public health," she said.
After that version of the resolution passed, Naomi Roberts said, "I'm not surprised they passed it. They're so liberal."
And Fogel reminded that Pat Robertson now favors legalization of pot. Said Fogel, "I think the time is long overdue to make a change."
Correction May 8: Dave Norris' ill relative was misidentified in the original version.
Clarification May 8: The Partnership for a Drug-free America survey that claims an 80 percent increase for teen pot smokers refers to heavy smokers and it's a number that rose from 5 percent to 9 percent.