Norfolk millennials call on lawmakers to decriminalize marijuana

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The message was clear at a meeting of mostly millennials Monday night in downtown Norfolk; it’s time to decriminalize marijuana.

Support is growing for marijuana reform in the city after councilman Paul Riddick voiced his approval at a meeting in late August.

‘Decriminalize Norfolk,’ a grassroots group aiming to educate people about marijuana laws, met Monday to hash out a plan for lobbying local and state lawmakers ahead of next year’s General Assembly.

Austin Burns says he’s been arrested three times for possessing small amounts of marijuana. He’s paid fines, went to jail and lost his license. He wants the public to know that pot smokers are not bad people.

“People shouldn’t be criminalized as these huge drug addicts because they choose to sit on the couch and smoke marijuana on their evenings and in their free time,” says Burns.

‘Decriminalize Norfolk’ and its members are in favor of laws that would not criminally charge first time marijuana offenders; instead, make them pay a fine out of court.

“If these cases were no longer made a priority by the police, that would free up both police and prosecutorial manpower to go after some of the larger crimes in our community,” says S.W. Dawson, a Norfolk defense attorney who litigates for drug offenders. “The courts are just overly clogged with these types of cases and the underground market for drugs is far more dangerous than the drug itself.”

Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe says 86 inmates are currently being held at the city jail solely for possession of marijuana. McCabe says it costs the city $58.69 per inmate, per day. That means the city spends at least $1.8 million a year to house marijuana offenders.

Councilman Tommy Smigiel has joined Paul Riddick in support of finding out if taxpayer money is being wasted.

“Let’s look at this data that’s out there and let’s see how it’s really impacting our judicial system and costing taxpayers money,” said Smigiel. “Norfolk has been trying to be the leader on attracting millennials to the city, so I think you have a very open-minded council who is willing to have these conversations.”

Opponents argue marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs and decriminalization would increase drug use.

Meanwhile, supporters of reform want law enforcement to focus on “more serious crimes,” including unsolved murders, home invasions and vehicle thefts.

‘Decriminalize Norfolk’ is urging the community to send letters to council members, state senators and delegates.

On Oct. 10, city leaders from across Hampton Roads will be a part of a panel discussion on decriminalization of marijuana at the Virginia Municipal League meeting.