In last week’s column, I suggested that the best hope for victory for Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie rested on a long stretch of policy-induced boredom. In that spirit, let’s look at one of the more intriguing policy proposals to roll out of Camp Gillespie in recent weeks: his ideas on criminal-justice reform.
While it can be argued that Gillespie is playing catch-up to Democratic nominee Ralph Northam on criminal-justice reform (Northam published an op-ed on his policy ideas in Medium back in February), the Republican’s ideas are worth a closer look.
At the top of Gillespie’s list are broad proposals to tweak the state’s marijuana laws.
Gillespie promises that if he is elected and can persuade the General Assembly to follow his lead, he will loosen the penalties for simple possession of marijuana from their current level (possession of a half-ounce or less is a misdemeanor with a possible 30-day jail sentence and $500 fine) to one at which a “person arrested for simple possession of marijuana would not be criminally charged with possession until the third instance.”
It doesn’t go as far as Northam’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana “so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it,” but it is a step in the right direction.
It’s also a fairly good political move — as far as it goes.
Research on arrest statistics by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service found that African Americans were “3.2 times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges” in 2016, despite similarities in usage rates between the two groups.
Could Gillespie’s proposal mean a change in the GOP’s longtime support for the drug war?
Not entirely. Gillespie makes clear that “reassessing our priorities must not become a pretext for reducing law enforcement resources or abandoning the fight against drug abuse.”
Those aren’t the words of someone looking for a drug war armistice. Nor is his stated opposition to decriminalization.
On these matters, Gillespie trails far behind Northam, as well as Republican Senate majority leader Tommy Norment, who commissioned a study from the Virginia Crime Commission on marijuana decriminalization.
Norment says he’s “open” to the idea. Still, for Gillespie, this counts as small progress toward a slightly less punitive drug war.
Gillespie is on more solid — dare we say “progressive” — footing on medical marijuana.
“We owe our fellow Virginians every chance of treating and managing certain significant conditions such as cancer and epilepsy,” Gillespie’s proposal says.
“Ed supports appropriate, limited, tightly regulated use of marijuana for medicinal purposes based in science and on medical trials.”
Aside from the “limited, tightly regulated” verbiage, this shows genuine progress — and a widening acceptance that medical marijuana could be helpful to many Virginians.
In this, Gillespie appears to be following the lead of his ticket-mate, lieutenant governor nominee Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel.
In the 2017 General Assembly session, Vogel introduced a bill that would have allowed Virginians suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other conditions to obtain and avoid prosecution for possession of medical products manufactured from marijuana.
The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
In his reform proposal, Gillespie says he “supports passage of legislation such as [Vogel’s] SB 1298 to allow the use of medical marijuana and CBD oil when scientific research has demonstrated the benefit of this as an effective treatment for serious conditions.”
That’s fair. It demonstrates compassion for the sick and the dying who have exhausted every other means of treatment.
Gillespie’s biggest obstacle would be getting Republicans in the House of Delegates to agree.
There are other items of note in the Republican’s criminal-justice proposals, including lifting the state’s antiquated threshold for felony larceny from $200 to $500, “functionally ending” the practice of suspending drivers licenses of those unable to pay their fines and bringing order to the process by which felons’ civil rights are restored.
While some of the steps are tentative, they represent progress for a nominee of a party that has long emphasized greater law enforcement over necessary reforms.