“Simple possession” of marijuana refers to possession of marijuana for personal use. It does not include possession with the intent to distribute, nor does it include conspicuous public use of marijuana.
I did not come to this decision lightly. This deliberate policy shift is a result of significant meetings, research and thoughtful consideration. It’s based on a thorough look at our criminal-justice system, downstream consequences and our community’s needs.
Prosecuting adults for simple possession of marijuana does not improve community safety. In fact, such prosecutions can spur crime. These convictions result in individuals having a criminal record that can never be expunged. An otherwise law-abiding person who’s found with a relatively insignificant amount of marijuana does not constitute a threat to our safety. Saddling that individual with a criminal record sentences him or her to a life of grossly decreased opportunities: It’s nearly impossible to rent a good apartment, receive a student loan or get a decent job. This is particularly true for Fairfax residents competing with job applicants from jurisdictions that do not criminalize simple possession of marijuana, notably the District.
Furthermore, these prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color. African Americans are 3.2 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Fairfax County. A legal permanent resident could be considered “automatically deportable” or barred from reentering the United States for a marijuana conviction. These consequences clearly have serious and wide-ranging effects that weaken our communities.
Prosecuting adults for simple possession of marijuana drains county resources that should be focused on serious crimes. Fairfax County has made 11,937 arrests or citations for possession of marijuana since 2017. Prosecuting each of these cases requires an expenditure of resources by the police, the court and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office that add up quickly. There’s also the growing cost to have the evidence evaluated at the Department of Forensic Science’s laboratory facility. That need to test marijuana has helped create a backlog of 12,609 controlled substances cases awaiting testing, which means newly submitted cases are placed into a months-long queue. All told, Virginia is estimated to spend more than $81 million per year on marijuana cases.
Lastly, prosecuting adults for simple possession of marijuana is not in line with the priorities of our community. I’ve had countless conversations across Fairfax County listening to concerns about out-of-touch policies that are wasteful, ineffective and counterproductive. The prosecution of simple possession of marijuana is something that comes up often. That’s why I established a sensible, public, values-based declaration for criminal-justice reform called Progressive Justice. On Election Day, the voters did not just vote for me; they voted for those reform priorities. Now that I’ve taken office, I am listening to my neighbors and leading on our community’s priorities.
The American Bar Association’s Standards for the Prosecution Function entrusts prosecutors with the duties “to seek justice . . . not merely to convict,” and to “seek to reform and improve the administration of criminal justice.” As those standards state, “when inadequacies or injustices in the substantive or procedural law come to the prosecutor’s attention, the prosecutor should stimulate and support efforts for remedial action.” There are clear inadequacies and injustices in how our criminal-justice system deals with simple possession of marijuana that make our communities less safe.
As a lawyer, I dedicated myself to the pursuit of justice — this very type of reform. When I raised my hand and took the oath of office, I also dedicated myself to serving our community by providing justice for all to the best of my ability. That’s why I directed my office to dismiss cases of adults charged with simple possession of marijuana.