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Va. city calls for review of state's pot policies

Tuesday - 5/8/2012, 12:59pm  ET

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - The Charlottesville City Council says it's time for the state to rethink its policies on marijuana possession.

The council adopted a resolution Monday night calling on the state to revisit sentencing guidelines for simple marijuana possession. It also proposes eliminating rules that suppose intent to distribute marijuana without evidence and asks the General Assembly and the governor to "give due consideration" to bills that would decriminalize, legalize or regulate marijuana like alcohol.

"I think it's perfectly legitimate for us to say as an elected body that there are other priorities and that we're going the wrong direction when it comes to the war on drugs," said Councilor Dave Norris.

Councilor Dede Smith acknowledged the council doesn't have the power to change drug laws, but said the resolution "does send the message actually in support of those who can," according to The Daily Progress ( http://bit.ly/IVunPT).

Mayor Sayendra Huja and Councilor Kathy Galvin opposed the resolution.

Huja said it would detract from community health, safety and the welfare of citizens. Galvin argued the council shouldn't use its "bully pulpit" to send mixed messages to children.

City officials said marijuana possession already is a low priority, with police statistics showing only 113 charges for marijuana possession were issued in 2011. That's about 2 percent of the more than 5,000 charges in the city last year and is typical of the number of such charges over the past five years.

Officials said a "great majority" of those possession charges occurred when police found marijuana while making an arrest on another charge. Police department records do not indicate whether the possession was a primary or secondary charge.

"They're not huge numbers," Police Chief Timothy J. Longo said at the meeting.

Longo and City Manager Maurice Jones sent a memo to councilors arguing that it was not necessary to pass the resolution, because police already focus on higher priority crimes.

"Statistically, I don't think we have an argument here that it's taxing the resources of law enforcement," Longo said.

Under Virginia law, possession of marijuana is classified as a misdemeanor carrying punishment of up to 30 days in jail and fines of up to $500. Subsequent convictions carry a jail sentence of up to a year and fines of up to $2,500.

The idea for the resolution was brought to the council by Jordan McNeish, a 23-year-old activist formerly involved with the Occupy Charlottesville movement who has since founded a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. McNeish has openly acknowledged that he has had past legal trouble involving marijuana possession.

While several members of the public spoke in favor of the resolution, others described their struggles with addiction and urged its defeat.

"Charlottesville will become the city of potheads," said city resident Melanie Roberts.

Former tea party leader Carole Thorpe warned the council against politicizing the police department.

"Whether the majority political orientation of our governing party is Democrat or Republican ... I see a great danger in that body using the police department in any manner to promote its political agenda or fight the other side," Thorpe said.

Local attorney Jeff Fogel rejected that argument, saying city voters elect those who represent their views. He also called the war on drugs a "colossal failure" that leads to violence.

Despite the resolution's passage, councilors stressed that marijuana remains illegal in the city.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)