Virginia attorney general launches push to decriminalize marijuana

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Virginia's attorney general thinks the state should change how it views marijuana.

In an op-ed published Saturday in a Hampton Roads newspaper, Attorney General Mark Herring said Virginia should move away from arresting people who possess small amounts of marijuana. He also thinks the state should take steps to make the drug legal for adults to use.

"Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working," Herring told WDBJ7 Monday, arguing that Virginia's policy toward marijuana is putting an unnecessary burden on the court system.

"It is needlessly creating criminals and saddling people with convictions," Herring said.

The Virginia Crime Commission, a state agency that advises lawmakers on public safety matters, studied marijuana crimes last year at the direction of the General Assembly. They found that jail time is frequently waived for first-time offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana, and those convicted of second or subsequent offenses received an average jail sentence of about 15 days.

"Our position was that we waived jail," said Mike Doucette, a former prosecutor who served as Lynchburg's commonwealth's attorney for 11 years. He now represents prosecutors around the state as executive director for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys.

Doucette said lower level marijuana cases don't have a significant impact on the case load of prosecutors.

"A lot of prosecutors around the commonwealth have the same philosophy that I had (as a prosecutor) and say we're just going to waive jail on these particular offenses," Doucette explained.

During his time as a prosecutor, Doucette investigated the 2013 death of a Lynchburg teen named Jamisha Gilbert. He concluded she died of hypothermia, after having a psychotic episode related to smoking marijuana.

His experience with that case and others has led him to believe that Virginia leaders need to take a broad look at marijuana before changing the current laws.

"Let's have a discussion about it," Doucette told WDBJ7. "Let's talk about this and let's go into whatever it is we do with open eyes and an open mind."

Doucette's organization does not have an official stance on whether marijuana should be decriminalized. Herring is hoping the General Assembly will begin the process of decriminalizing marijuana during its next session in January.