Senate committee tables bill decriminalizing marijuana possession
Published: October 26, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The Senate Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee heard passionate testimony from advocates and opponents of Sen. Terrence Nelson's bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana, but senators decided to hold it in committee.
In introducing the bill, Nelson, who is not a member of the committee, portrayed decriminalization as a growing trend nationally and internationally, with significant economic and societal benefits.
He said that other jurisdictions that had passed legalization reforms were getting in on the ground floor of an industry. Nelson has stated that full legalization is his ultimate goal, and he cited data to dispel notions that marijuana is automatically harmful, injurious and deserving of stigma.
"Are we saying that because individuals violate current legislation that they should be condemned to a life of limited gains?" Nelson said.
Joanne Naughton, a former New York police lieutenant and a representative of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group, testified in support of the bill. Naughton said her group comprises active and retired police officers and lawyers who once fought hard to win the drug war but now realize it has been a futile and expensive waste of manpower, with disproportionate and unfair impacts on minority groups.
She compared the statistically high rates of incarceration of African Americans, particularly males, in the United States to the era of apartheid in South Africa.
Nelson introduced one amendment to the bill Friday, adjusting the amount that would qualify as being a civil, ticketable offense with a $100 fine from less than two ounces to less than one ounce.
The bill makes simple possession of small amounts of marijuana a ticketable civil offense, and in cases of minors it requires notification of a parent and the completion of drug awareness programs for ticketed youths.
The bill also would lower penalties for possessing, selling, distributing and growing marijuana, based on the amount involved. Most would fall into the misdemeanor category.
In their testimony, law enforcement and corrections officials provided stark and hard-line opposition.
V.I. Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr., Bureau of Corrections Assistant Director Dwayne Benjamin and Attorney General Vincent Frazer stated unequivocally that they think the measure will encourage drug abuse, particularly among youth, and open up a Pandora's box in the territory by incentivizing drug traffickers.
Importation and the violence associated with the drug trade would increase, not decrease, if the bill is implemented, they said.
"Intelligence gathered locally indicates that many of our young males who are committing the serious crimes, including murders, are 'smoking up' a mixture of marijuana and other illegal substances - crack or cocaine - prior to committing the crimes because it makes them feel invincible and untouchable," Querrard said.
"Reducing the penalties currently on our books will only further what we are seeing presently, the continuing fall of our young people."
Frazer qualified this stance by saying that he does not oppose amending the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to being a ticketable offense, simply to ease the financial burden that adjudication poses. However, everything else about the bill he is against, he said.
Frazer also pointed out that states that had legalized marijuana were in a much better financial position to regulate the industry and to treat mental illness, which he characterized as being highly correlated with marijuana addiction.
Benjamin said only four of Golden Grove's 600 plus prisoners are there for simple possession crimes.
To counter Nelson's points about the adverse consequences for people stigmatized and shut out from educational and workforce opportunities as a result of a marijuana conviction, the criminal justice officials also said that the means to expunge records exist for offenders and that the territory's prosecutors and judges frequently exercise their discretion.
Advocates from USVI NORML, a chapter of the national legalization and reform organization, said the measure is flawed in that it does not address the supply end of the marijuana trade because it leaves producers and processors of marijuana to be classified as criminals.
It was clear from their comments and questions that senators on the committee are ambivalent about the bill.
Sen. Clarence Payne III said the proposed legislation would conflict with the zero tolerance values of many parents, and for that reason he opposes it.
Sen. Craig Barshinger pointed to the open selling of marijuana in Cruz Bay and the lack of police enforcement as well as a loose, anecdotal sense that between 20 percent and 60 percent of Virgin Islanders regularly use marijuana, as signs of gross hypocrisy within the current laws.
Sen. Judi Buckley said she clearly sees both sides of the argument and that she has a close relative who sought out marijuana as treatment for cancer. Nonetheless, she said, she opposes the bill in its current form and agreed with Frazer's assessments of the dangers involved.
In other business, the committee:
- Held Bill 30-0041, an act to repeal and re-enact codes defining self-defense, because it is not ready for distribution yet, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Sammuel Sanes
- Held in committee Bill 30-0064, an act enacting the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction, also sponsored by Sanes, because some sections are missing from distributed copies, Sanes said.
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