On his first day in office on Thursday, the new prosecutor for Fairfax County, Virginia announced that he will not be pursuing cases of low-level marijuana possession.
But that action has already hit a snag, with a judge rejecting Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano’s guidance and denying a motion to dismiss one such a case. Judge Mark Simmons reportedly said that each case needs to be reviewed individually, and twice refused the prosecutor’s request to dismiss a possession case.
A man appeared (w/o a lawyer) on a simple possession charged, CA moved to nolle pros, Judge Mark Simmons denied the motion. CA again moved to dismiss case, Judge denied.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
But in subsequent cases on Thursday, Simmons did dismiss possession charges per the prosecutor’s request.
After denying prosecutor’s move to drop marijuana possession prosecution in first case before him, Judge Simmons has gone on to dismiss others. Plan to drop all marijuana possession cases in Fairfax County will be a case-by-case and judge-by-judge situation.
— justin jouvenal (@jjouvenal) January 2, 2020
Descano, a former federal prosecutor who campaigned on reducing mass incarceration and ending the drug war, is following the lead of several other commonwealth’s attorneys who’ve emphasized the need for prosecutorial discretion when it comes to cannabis offenses.
“I did not come to this decision lightly,” he said in a press release. “This deliberate policy shift is a result of significant meetings, research, and thoughtful considerations. It’s based on a thorough look at our criminal justice system, downstream consequences, and most importantly our community.”
“I dedicated myself to the pursuit of justice as a lawyer which means I dedicated myself to this very type of reform. When I raised my hand and took the oath of office I also dedicated myself to serve our community by providing justice for all to the best of my ability. Therefore, consistent with a prosecutor’s duty to seek justice and my dedication to our community, I have directed my office to dismiss prosecutions of adults for simple possession of marijuana.”
Last year, two Virginia prosecutors—Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood and Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales—said that they would dismiss misdemeanor possession cases under certain circumstances.
But in Norfolk, a coalition of judges banded together to block the move, arguing that such a policy change would have to be codified in the legislature, rather than handled at the prosecutor’s level. The dispute reached the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled in May that judges have the authority to accept or reject judicial directives from the commonwealth’s attorneys.
With that, the Fairfax County judge’s decision to reject Descano’s possession policy is unlikely to face a further legal challenge.
A few simple possession cases have since been nolled prossed. Couple more to go. Judge is being clear about hearing each case individually and not interested in a blanket approach.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
Additionally, the Fairfax County Police Department said on Thursday that it will not be changing internal policy on enforcing marijuana possession offenses.
Fairfax County PD says Descano’s policy will not change nor affect how officers enforce Virginia’s marijuana possession laws.
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) January 2, 2020
In any case, what the prosecutor’s announcement does signal is a growing sentiment in Virginia that courts and law enforcement shouldn’t waste resources on pursuing low-level cannabis offenses.
“The current approach to marijuana possession is not working for Fairfax County,” Descano wrote in the policy directive. “Prosecuting adults for marijuana possession wastes resources, hurts our neighbors and our communities, and does not significantly improve community safety.”
“It is clear that there are inadequacies and injustices in how our criminal justice system deals with possession of marijuana and that they make our communities less safe,” he said.
While judges can continue to resist reform attempts ordered by prosecutors, legislative change that can’t be ignored may be on the horizon.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who ran on decriminalization in 2017 and talked about the policy in his State of the Commonwealth address last year, is pushing for the legislature to achieve that goal, which has been made all the more likely since Democrats reclaimed control of both chambers of the General Assembly in November’s elections.
Lawmakers have already prefiled bills decriminalize and legalize marijuana for the 2020 legislative session.
The state’s top cop is also on board with comprehensive cannabis reform. Attorney General Mark Herring (D) hosted a summit last month that involved discussions with representatives of states that have legalized marijuana.
Herring, who is running for governor in 2021, has also laid out a reform agenda that he says will begin with decriminalization and expungements and he hopes will eventually lead to full cannabis legalization.
Read Descano’s full marijuana prosecution policy directive below:
This story has been updated to include additional quotes from Descano and the policy directive.
Trump Says Marijuana Makes People “Lose IQ Points” In Secret Recording
President Trump could be heard saying that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points” in a secretly recorded conversation released on Saturday.
“In Colorado they have more accidents,” the president said in the clip captured by Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani, who is at the center of the Ukraine scandal that led to the president’s impeachment. “It does cause an IQ problem.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of YouTube/White House.
Austin Police Chief Says Marijuana Arrests Will Continue Despite City Council Vote
Chief Brian Manley said he would continue to enforce marijuana laws the day after the city council unanimously approved stopping arrests and tickets for low-level cases.
The day after the Austin City Council approved a resolution to stop arresting or ticketing people for most low-level marijuana possession offenses, the police chief made clear he had no plans to do so.
“[Marijuana] is still illegal, and we will still enforce marijuana law if we come across people smoking in the community,” Chief Brian Manley said during a news conference Friday afternoon.
Though cracking down on those in possession of small amounts of marijuana has never been a priority for the department, he said, police will continue to either issue tickets under the city’s “cite-and-release” policy or arrest people if officers “come across it.”
The difference, according to City Council member and resolution sponsor Greg Casar, is that the council’s move now guarantees those actions will come with no penalty. Tickets will be meaningless pieces of paper and any arrests will result in a quick release with no charges accepted from prosecutors, he told The Texas Tribune after the news conference.
“What has changed since yesterday is that enforcement, almost in virtually all cases, is now handing someone a piece of paper with no penalty or no court date,” Casar said.
The move by the City Council came as a direct result from Texas’ new hemp law which complicated marijuana prosecution across the state. Last summer, when lawmakers legalized hemp, they also changed the definition of marijuana from cannabis to cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant.
Many prosecutors, including those in Austin’s Travis County, now won’t accept pot cases based on look and smell alone, requiring lab testing to determine THC levels before accepting a case. Such testing is not yet available in public crime labs, though some counties and cities have spent money to obtain test results from private labs.
The council’s resolution prohibited using city funds or personnel to conduct such testing in non-felony marijuana cases. It also directed the elimination, to the furthest extent possible, of arrests or citations for cannabis possession. As Manley also noted, the resolution clarifies it can’t technically decriminalize marijuana, since that is state law.
The resolution gave the city manager until May 1 to report back to the council on how police were trained in this new resolution, and Casar said he hopes Manley reviews his policies before then.
Manley said in the news conference that he would continue to review the resolution, as well as police policies.
But, he assured, “a City Council does not have the authority to tell a police department not to enforce a state law.”
The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans
Andrew Yang says he wants to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans to help them combat mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
During a town hall event at an Iowa college on Thursday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked whether he would take initiative and allow veterans to access medical marijuana if elected. Yang replied he “will be so excited to be that commander-in-chief” that he would not only end federal cannabis prohibition but would go one step further by legalizing the psychedelic fungus for veterans as well.
“We need to get marijuana off of the Controlled Substances Act and legalize it at the federal level, make it freely available,” he said. “I say this because I’ve talked to hundreds of veterans and other Americans who benefit from marijuana as a pain relief treatment, and it’s much less deadly than the opiates that many, many people are using for the same conditions.”
“I’ve talked to veterans who’ve also benefited from psilocybin mushrooms,” he added. “They said it was the only thing that actually has helped combat their PTSD. I’m for legalizing psilocybin mushrooms for veterans as well. Pretty much if it’s going to help a veteran, we should make it easier, not harder, for them to get access to it.”
Yang’s drug policy reform platform is unique in that respect. While the majority of Democratic candidates support marijuana legalization, he’s pushed unique proposals such as decriminalizing possession of opioids and making psilocybin mushrooms “more freely available” for therapeutic purposes. The candidate also wants to invest federal funds in safe injection facilities where individuals can use prohibited drugs in a medically supervised environment and receive help getting into treatment.
He hasn’t gone so far as embracing the decriminalization of all drugs, as former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has, however.
That said, Yang did signal that he’s open to legalizing and regulating “certain drugs” beyond cannabis, which he argued would disrupt international drug cartels. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently said she backs “legalizing and regulating” currently illegal controlled substances to protect public safety and combat the illicit market.
At the Iowa town hall, Yang went on to say that he’s particularly interested in legalizing marijuana, and he again pledged to “pardon everyone who’s in jail for a non-violent marijuana-related offense because they shouldn’t be in jail for something that’s frankly legal in other parts of the country.”
“And I would pardon them all on April 20, 2021, high-five them on the way out of jail and be like, ‘things got a lot better in the last year,'” he said, referencing the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.