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HB 972 creates clear discrimination

To the editor:

HB 972 was passed recently in Virginia by the governor’s recommendation. This bill makes the possession of no more than an ounce of marijuana a civil penalty with a fine of $25. This will not be on record and will not affect a background check. The ultimate goal is to pave the way for legalization of marijuana in Virginia.

Under previous laws, those who possessed a half-ounce or less of marijuana were convicted of simple possession and those with more than a half-ounce were convicted of possession with the intent to distribute. This was punishable by jail time and at least two years of supervised probation and required drug counseling. Successfully serving a sentence did not offer any reward, hope or second chances. Due to Virginia not having an expungement law, ex-offenders, even if this was their one and only criminal offense, have suffered decade after decade of lost wages, discrimination in housing, denial to join the military, denial of bonding, delayed admission to certain colleges, and much more.

In regard to employment, all professional jobs have policies that automatically prohibit the hiring of someone with a drug charge, no matter how many years have passed. I know ex-offenders who have high degrees and who are initially chosen for high-paying jobs only to be turned down following a background check showing a drug conviction. Lapsed time, no matter how many years have passed, doesn’t change an employer’s mind due to policies in place.

I have worked for many years now to have expungement bills presented to the General Assembly only to see these bills go to the Courts of Justice Committee and get tabled. Thousands and most likely hundreds of thousands of those having a past marijuana conviction have had all doors to professional employment that offers benefits, high wages that increase Social Security earnings, health benefits closed to them for the rest of their lives, have suffered housing discrimination, denial to join the military, etc. Many I have advocated for were convicted as a late teen, age 18 or 19. I know firsthand these who are now around the age of 40 have had all doors closed for over two decades. They have been denied in every sense their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They have been victims of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

To institute a civil law to protect those in possession of marijuana going forward and to be considering legalization of marijuana in Virginia and at the same time not retroactively offering expungement for the convictions of past marijuana offenders, is clear discrimination. My hope is that any organization that can help speak up about this discrimination will and that citizens of Virginia will take the time to call those who represent them and call the governor to advocate for these who are the victims of this discrimination. Expungement in Virginia for marijuana convictions prior to this civil law is the only way to end this discrimination and give hope to those who have suffered for decades.

Judy Smith

Abingdon