13News Now Investigates: The marijuana debate in Virginia

13News Now investigates the push for decriminalizing -- or even legalizing -- marijuana in Virginia, as more and more states put pot on their ballots.

13News Now David Alan has the story None

Part 1: Decriminalization fight continues in Norfolk, despite long odds

18-year-old Trajon Rivera says it happens to him every week in the city where he lives, Norfolk: he says he keeps getting pulled over by police on the suspicion of the smell of marijuana.

“Every time I turn around, I'm getting pulled over, stopped. They say they smell marijuana... for no reason. Don't ever find anything on me.”

And each time, Rivera says he’s asked to get out of his car, patted down, placed on the side of the curb while police search his car.

But there was one time this past summer when a tiny amount of marijuana was found in his car. The charge was later dropped, because there wasn’t proof the drug actually belonged to him or to the passengers in his vehicle. Still, he says the effects of that one charge continue to haunt him.

“Making it hard for me to get a job. Can’t work nowhere," he says. "Marijuana following me on my record.”

Push for studying marijuana decriminalization

Rivera’s situation is a big reason why his attorney, S.W. Dawson, is a strong proponent for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. He has a long client list of young men who face possession charges, and Dawson says the racial disparity among arrest rates is astonishing. Rivera is African-American.

“Any law that cannot be equitably enforced is a bad law. Often in our city, there are certain areas where officers will pull over young people -- often of color -- on the suspicion of the scent of marijuana and that simply is not a stop that you will see police officers make in other parts of Norfolk, " says Dawson.

According to the 2015 and 2016 arrest rates from the Norfolk Police Department, 922 people were arrested for possession of marijuana, first offense. Of those, 724 were African-American.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2013, African-American residents accounted for at least 80 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the cities of Portsmouth and Norfolk. Black people accounted for 60 percent or more of all marijuana possession arrests in Chesapeake at 64 percent, For Suffolk, it was 70 percent, while Hampton and Newport News were both at 74 percent.

Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests in Virginia 2003-2013

In regards to the racial disparity, Norfolk Police spokesperson Melinda Wray says the department is dedicated to fair and impartial connections with community members.

13News Now was given this statement:

The Norfolk Police Department practices a data driven approach to combating criminal conduct and does not distinguish differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, religious or sexual orientation, social or economic status.  Field Patrol Officers are driven by calls for service to specific locations or in response to criminal activity and must respond accordingly to evidence of criminal conduct.  Quite frequently, contact with law enforcement is initiated as a result of other mitigating factors, which can subsequently lead to the arrest for marijuana-related charges."

Meanwhile, a grassroots effort in Norfolk to push state lawmakers to strongly consider decriminalization is growing.

Charles Rasputin is on the front lines of that movement. Now an artist, he knows firsthand the difficulties of recovering from marijuana convictions. 

“I've served time behind bars. I've done many years on probation, lost employability... homes.”

A look at the debate to decriminalize marijuana in the City of Norfolk and throughout Virginia. 13News Now anchor Janet Roach has the story None

Decriminalize Norfolk’s goal is to help educate the community and elected officials about the benefits of decriminalization.

“The way that we try to over-police, that can be detrimental to those who have no real ill-intent,” adds Rasputin.

Video: Interview with Charles Rasputin

Charles Rasputin of Decriminalize Norfolk talks about why he supports decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Several Norfolk city leaders are listening and agreeing. Councilwoman Andria McClellan supports decriminalization.

"Once this is on your record, it can affect your ability to obtain a job. It can also -- depending on the number of arrests, level of arrests -- it can affect your ability to get a Pell Grant, if you're a college student."

McClellan is one of several council members who spoke up about decriminalization at a recent council work session. Although many on council support the idea, they acknowledge that it’s an uphill battle to get the Republican-controlled state legislature to agree.

“We’re what they call a 'Dillon Rule' state, where the state makes the rules and we have to enforce them on a local level,” McClellan explains.

So far, council hasn’t made any decisions on how to proceed on the issue, but promises to keep the discussion going and encourage other localities to begin pressuring state lawmakers.

Public opinion is on their side. According to a Christopher Newport University poll in 2015, 71 percent of Virginia voters support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Right now, possession of a half an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

Majority leader of the state Senate Tommy Norment told 13News Now "We should examine civil penalties and alternative punishments," when asked about marijuana decriminalization. 

But just as support begins to swell, some members of law enforcement remind us that going after low-level drug offenders can lead to bigger crimes.

"Marijuana can lead to finding a gun, finding other drugs. I mean, there could be a gun in the car stolen, linked to other crimes... just keeps building from there,” says Newport News Police public information officer, Brandon J. Maynard.  In the last year, Newport News has had 595 marijuana possession charges.

Earlier this month, when 31-year-old Rudolf Kenner was pulled over in Newport News, officers noticed the smell of marijuana and allegedly found the drug in his possession... but also ammunition. That led to charges of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.

Also this month in York County, when Robert Copley was charged with marijuana possession, he was also found to be allegedly manufacturing methamphetamine.

In September, Langley Air Force Base Senior Airman John Deming's marijuana possession charge came with possession of cocaine and possession of a firearm with a controlled substance.

The debate continues over changing Virginia's marijuana laws. 13News Now reporter Marcella Robertson has the story None

Part 2: Could legalizing marijuana happen in Virginia?

Norfolk isn’t the first city that has tried to start the conversation about some form of legalization in Virginia. In 2012, Charlottesville City Council passed a resolution to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The resolution had little-to-no traction at all in the General Assembly.

“It’s easy to dismiss a college town,” said Quentin Kidd, who is a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. Political experts like Kidd say it is going to take several major cities to get traction on the issue. If other cities take a stance along with Norfolk, experts say it is possible we could see some movement in the next few years.

Colorado legalized the sale of small amounts of pot in 2014. It came as a push from voters, because Colorado is a proposition state. Virginia, however, is a "Dillon-Rule" state, which means any type of new legislation can only come from the General Assembly.

“An individual city couldn’t decide to decriminalize marijuana on its own,” said Kidd.

According to Kidd, the door for legalizing marijuana is already open in Virginia. In a landmark decision last year, lawmakers voted to allow the use of small amounts of marijuana oil for certain illnesses.

“They were very limited and conservative in how they allowed the use of medical marijuana oils,” said Kidd.

It is still a far cry from being able to ask your local budtender for marijuana like in Colorado. However, some people in Denver believe other states aren’t as far behind on the issue as you may think.

Currently, more than two dozen states have some form of legalization of marijuana.  Five states are expected to vote on the issue in next week’s election. 

According to a recent CNU poll, the overwhelming majority of voters support both medical and decriminalization of marijuana.

Lawmakers are supposed to support the will of the people, so with that in mind, we wanted to know why the issue hasn’t come up in the General Assembly. Kidd says that is because the issue isn’t at the top of everybody’s list of issues like education, roads, and infrastructure are.

“Even though the public says by wide margins, 'We support decriminalization, we support medical use of marijuana,' if the General Assembly doesn’t hear that from the people, they aren’t going to feel compelled to act on it,” said Kidd.

That is why groups like Decriminalize Norfolk are backing city councilors and helping with the local push.

“We are really engaging our population to put their voice down and getting it to the officials on the local level so at a state level they can see our view is of utmost importance, said Charles Rasputin with the organization.

However, lawmakers say the conversation could be more of a priority. 

“It’s in discussion now and it’s obviously baby steps, but the discussion will be at the forefront,” said Republican Delegate Ron Villanueva.

Meanwhile, support for the legalization of marijuana is coming from some of the most unexpected places. Even televangelist Pat Robertson said in a 2010 interview he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

“I just believe criminalizing marijuana and criminalizing the possession of pot is costing us a fortune and it's ruining your people. Young people go into prison as youth and come out as hardened criminals, and it’s not a good thing,” said Robertson.

Political experts say it is unlikely Virginia will ever be trailblazer when it comes to this issue.

“As this goes from state to state, Virginia is not going to be a leader in this kind of reform. Virginia very seldom is, but it will be in the middle pack of the states that says 'A lot of states have done it, we’ll consider it now,'” said Kidd.

Although the stipulations are strict, allowing marijuana for medical use means Virginia already has one foot in the door.

How has Colorado fared since it legalized the sale of marijuana? 13News Now anchor David Alan reports. None

Part 3: Does weed work for Colorado?

Three years ago, Colorado launched what’s been called the "Greatest Social Experiment of the 21st Century," when it became the first state in the country to legalize small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

By state law, residents 21 or older can by up to an ounce of pot. Tourists can purchase slightly less. 

“It’s about time. There has been so much persecution and misunderstanding for this God-given plant,” one customer told us when we visited Colorado.

We spoke with Dillon, a budtender at Medicine Man just outside Denver. It's one of 450 dispensaries licensed to sell legal marijuana in the state. We found him serving 20 different strains of weed, along with edibles and oils.

”I’d say 80 to 90 percent of our customers are tourists,” Dillon told us.  

Just behind the dispensary is a 40,000 square foot high-tech pot farm. The "Mother Room" is where it all begins. All of the plants in the cultivation center are started from clippings.

Elan Nelson, an executive with Medicine Man, says, “Any given day, we’re growing 50-60 different strains.”

By law, all of the 15,000 plants are tracked seed-to-sale with a radio-frequency identification tag that’s entered into a central database.

Some of the 70 employees at Medicine Man transplant the growing plants. The soil used here is actually coconut husks -- to better hold moisture -- and only organic chemicals are used on the plants. The "skull and crossbones" products are not approved for indoor use, nor are they fit for human consumption.

“Essentially, we are mimicking summer in here,” Nelson says. Lights, heat, and humidity reduce a year’s growth cycle to five months.

“Our electric bill is $40,000 a month,” Nelson points out.

PHOTOS: The growing marijuana industry in Colorado

In just three years, legal marijuana in Colorado has become a billion-dollar industry that’s created 10,000 jobs and brought people from around the country and the world here.

As a billion-dollar industry, legal marijuana ranks just below the craft brewery business in Colorado, but is still a small piece of the state’s $300 billion GDP. The hefty 25 percent tax on marijuana generated $140 million in revenue, with $40 million going to school construction.

"I think it’s too early to draw any big conclusions," says Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s "Marijuana Czar" who was hand-picked by the governor to roll out the state’s leap into legal pot. “In think we are, in the short term, heartened by the fact there have not been any huge spikes in public health, public safety, youth use, that fall out of the realm of normal statistical variation."

While data shows teen use of marijuana in Colorado is the highest in the nation, legal pot has not made the problem worse.There are those here who feel legal pot has cut into the black market, and there were 5,000 fewer marijuana arrests in the first year it became legal here.

“When we look at our Denver crime data, our marijuana related crime is two percent. And it was before legalization and it has continued to be,” says Ashley Killroy, the Marijuana Czar for the city of Denver.

For now, there are constant conversations between state agencies, law enforcement and parents to try and make sure the necessary controls are in place on the industry. But the long-term impact of legal marijuana is seen as much tougher to judge.

“I think the big questions people have are going to take much longer to come to real conclusions about,” says Freedman.

Freedman and others have said Colorado has a great brand and a strong economy. Will legal marijuana change that?

Colorado leaders admit they still have a lot to learn about legal marijuana. Being the guinea pig means everything that might go wrong, goes wrong while everyone is watching. But so far, the sky hasn’t fallen in the Rocky Mountain state.

13News Now David Alan has the story None

Part 4: Despite early successes, challenges remain

In 2014, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly agreed to go beyond decriminalizing marijuana, becoming become the first state in the nation to allow the legal sale of up to an ounce of pot to residents 21 and older and smaller amounts to tourists.

“The sky hasn’t fallen. In fact, our economy and our city of Denver seem to be doing better than ever.”

Joshua Kappel’s Denver law firm, Vicente Sederberg, LLC, pushed for the passage of Amendment 64.

“No one’s done this before. So to think that we’re going to get it right, or that anyone can get it right the first time, is very wishful thinking,” Kappel points out.  

To try and get it right, lawmakers, regulators, and the marijuana industry work together to keep up with a rapidly evolving venture.

In the first year marijuana became legal, there were 5,000 fewer marijuana arrests in Colorado. The use of pot by teens here -- already the highest in the nation -- hasn’t gone up. And the billion-dollar industry is generating $140 million a year in tax revenues alone.

But many agree that Colorado still faces a number of significant challenges with rolling out legal weed.

Denver Marijuana Czar Ashley Killroy says, “One of our issues continues to be is, we still don’t what the impacts really are going to be long-term."

While pot is legal in Colorado it’s still is a federal crime, and that’s keeping most banks from taking marijuana money proceeds. Only recently have some community banks and credit unions agreed to take pot money.

The Medicine Man dispensary was financed solely by private money at 18 percent interest, and there are no tax write-offs for the industry.

“It’s not unbanked, it’s underbanked. My pun is this is a ‘half-banked’ industry.” says Andrew Freedman, the governor’s handpicked Marijuana Czar for the state. Freedman says he’d like to see credit cards accepted for purchases and careful audits, but that will take the federal government’s approval.

For now, the feds remain silent on what’s going on here.

Colorado’s rather loose home-grown laws have created an incentive for criminals to come in and grow pot to sell out of state, undercutting the image of legal marijuana.

“We see rising rates of people driving high, but that’s kind of sketchy data too, right now. And we see increased hospitalizations for people coding for marijuana," Freedman says.

Pesticides are another challenge. The "skull and crossbones" stuff is not fit for inside use or human consumption. Only organic chemicals can be used to grow legal marijuana.

Down the road, there is also a concern that legal marijuana someday goes the way of the tobacco industry.

“The entire debate comes down to whether this is a thing that’s better regulated, taxed and watched for public health and safety, or will commercialization take us down the road of 1960’s style tobacco where there was a push to get younger users and to get people to abuse the product,” Freedman adds.

In just three years, many voices here agree that Colorado has created a highly-regulated industry, that’s carefully being watched to make sure the necessary controls are in place. Supporters of marijuana argue the science now has turned in favor of pot as safer than opioids and alcohol.

Colorado may have been first, but the feeling here is many other states surely will follow.

David Alan, Janet Roach, and Marcella Robertson discuss the genesis of their series on marijuana which looked at the possibility of Virginia decriminalizing it and the potential for it to be legalized in the state at some point. None

Part 5: Marijuana's future in Virginia

Attitudes toward marijuana have changed dramatically over the years. Nancy Regan told everyone to, "Just Say No," Bill Clinton insisted he "didn’t inhale," while Barack Obama admits that as a youth, he did.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows more than half of adults favor legalizing marijuana. On election day, voters in five states will decide whether to approve the recreational use of pot. Virginia is not among them.

While Virginia is currently not an active part of the conversation, a push in Norfolk to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana could be a sign the Commonwealth is wading deeper into the pot debate.

According the Centers for Disease Control, 7,000 people try marijuana the for the first time every day. Millennials by wide margins think marijuana should be made legal. Thousands of you weighed in on the debate on our 13News Now Facebook page, saying, “Legalize weed, burn the tolls,” and “It’s waaaay past time to trash our senseless pot laws.”

Today, most Americans don’t feel it’s worth the money it costs to enforce pot laws. Marijuana arrests are at their lowest point in years. Still in 2015, the FBI says there were 640,000 arrests for marijuana, a vast majority for possession. That’s one arrest every 73 seconds.

“If we can take away some of the penalties for simple possession, I think that makes a lot of sense,” Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan told us.

Conversations in Norfolk about decriminalizing marijuana are part of changing attitudes toward pot, driven in part that a disproportionate number of blacks are being arrested for marijuana.  Out of 922 first offense marijuana possession charges in Norfolk last year, 724 were African-American.

“It’s my opinion from doing this from time to time, that the smell of marijuana is a tool for some police officers -- who are not particularly honest -- to stop and harass young men of color. There’s no doubt about it in my mind,” said attorney S.W. Dowson. 

Colorado has led the way when it comes to changing attitudes toward marijuana. We visited the state that in 2012 became the first in the nation to approve the legal sale of small amounts of marijuana. In the first year, marijuana arrests dropped by 5,000. In a few short years, legal marijuana has become a billion-dollar industry in Colorado. It’s created 10,000 jobs and generates $140 million a year in tax revenues. Beyond those numbers, legal pot has not created any huge spikes in public health of public safety issues.

“I think the big questions people have are going to take much longer to come to conclusions about,” said Colorado's Marijuana Czar, Andrew Freedman. Today, legal marijuana in Colorado is a highly-regulated industry, its success tied to constant conversations between state agencies, the health department, law enforcement and parents to make sure the necessary controls are in place on what’s been called the "Greatest Social Experiment of the 21st Century."

“I think we’re going to look back and say, 'I think Colorado did their best and they got it right,'” Elan Nelson told us as we toured the Medicine Man, one of more than 400 dispensaries in Colorado that sell legal marijuana.  

As for whether Virginia someday joins what appears to be a growing trend, our snapshot Facebook poll showed 60 percent of you feel the Commonwealth will have legal marijuana in five years. A recent Christopher Newport University poll showed 70 percent of Virginians support medical marijuana or decriminalizing pot. 

“Virginia will be in the middle of the pack of states that say 'A lot of states have done it, we’ll consider it now,'” Christopher Newport University Political Science Professor Quentin Kidd predicted. Next week, voters in five more states will consider whether to join the pack, a move that could make marijuana legal across 25 percent of the country.

For now the focus of the pot debate in Virginia is on a conversation in Norfolk to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Just this week, the effort picked up the support State Senator Tommy Norment.

What impact a city of a quarter-million people and the Senate Majority Leader may have on views toward marijuana remains to be seen, and many people in the Commonwealth are waiting to find out.

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