A Virginia Senate committee gave unanimous approval today to a measure aimed at restricting the sale of drug paraphernalia after Northern Virginians pleaded for protection from paraphernalia vendors driven out of the Maryland suburbs.
The committee's 12-to-0 decision sets the stage for a confrontation in the powerful House Courts of Justice committee, where defense lawyers effectively killed a similar measure last year by challenging its constitutionality.
"This is fantastic," crowed John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who brought almost two dozen area citizens to Richmond -- some by county van -- to lend their support for the measure. "It's a significant victory."
If approved by the legislature and signed into law, the measure would replace a more limited measure passed last year that bans the sale of such items to minors.
Herrity used today's hearing to show committee members a collection of drug-related devices he had brought in a brown paper bag and to warn that the recent clampdown in Maryland posed the threat that "the locusts will be spreading their evil paraphernalia into Northern Virginia."
But legislative supporters of the measure, which is based on a politically popular model law in force in Maryland and 11 other states, said recent court decisions upholding similar statutes were more convincing to the senators than Herrity's presentation.
"I'm very encouraged," said Del. Lawrence D. Pratt (R-Fairfax). "A lot of things have happened this year that hadn't happened the last time we brought it up."
According to a committee staff report, 13 federal district courts have upheld statutes based on the federal drug paraphernalia model. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overruled one such decision two months ago on grounds the model is unconstitutionally vague in its attempt to define drug paraphernalia.
Lawsuits are pending in several appeals courts around the country, and some lawyers expect the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say on the matter.
The bill, which its sponsor, Sen. A. Joe Canada Jr. (R-Virginia Beach), expects will meet little opposition on the Senate floor, would prohibit the manufacture, delivery and posession of any device that could be used in the consumption of marijuana or other controlled substances.
Kathleen Corson, a Fairfax mother who accompanied Herrity to Richmond, told reporters after the hearing that the measure was needed to protect other parents from the "living hell" she had experienced when her 16-year-old daughter turned to drugs.
"It's hell what our children are going through and it's adults who have done this for money," said Corson. "There are people who are trying to destroy our children. We parents have got to get together to fight it."
But American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Judy Goldberg, who had told committee members that the bill failed to distinguish between devices used with drugs and those found in a common kitchen, argued that a paraphernalia bill was powerless to halt the sale of drugs themselves.
"To hold this out as a solution to a serious drug problem in the country borders on the cynical," Goldberg said. "This gives parents the feeling that you're doing something about drug abuse when actually you're not doing anything. You're lulling them into a false sense of security."
That reasoning did little to change the minds of the Fairfax group, culled from local civic and PTA organizations. "I just feel sorry for these civil liberties people," sniffed one to a companion. "Somewhere along the line they've lost America."