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ACLU opposes Virginia governor’s marijuana decriminalization plan – for now

The ACLU of Virginia's executive director said the commonwealth would be better off without the governor's marijuana reform effort – in its current form.

RICHMOND, Va. — It was one of the biggest applause lines from the State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night, as Gov. Ralph Northam solidified a commitment to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia.

"The punishment must fit the crime," Northam (D) told the legislature, now controlled by Democrats in both chambers for the first time since 1995. "This means de-criminalizing marijuana possession—and clearing the records of people who’ve gotten in trouble for it." 

But the nuances and specific text of the new measures drew increased scrutiny from the ACLU of Virginia, as two bills carrying the governor’s vision became public.

The organization’s executive director said the commonwealth would be better off without the governor's current marijuana reform effort – as it stands now.

"We really would prefer the status quo while we're waiting for full legalization," Claire G. Gastañaga of the Virginia ACLU said Thursday.

RELATED: New Fairfax Co. prosecutor will no longer pursue charges for simple marijuana possession

"We're very hopeful changes can be made. But, with these bills, substituting a civil penalty for a criminal fine is not a positive forward step."

The new penalties within the legislation are one of the main issues the organization has with the state's current marijuana decriminalization effort.

The legislation would eliminate criminal fines and jail time for possession of marijuana in Virginia. But the ACLU takes issue with the imposition of new civil punishments in place of the old criminal penalties.

"Kids possessing marijuana could potentially still be found ‘delinquent’ and channeled into juvenile criminal system for civil violation," Gastañaga said. "And, they could lose their driver’s license for six months and be subjected to mandated drug screening."

Civil infractions carry no right to representation by counsel, with the civil rights organization concerned people could still be arrested and potentially, in a worst-case scenario, coerced into plea deals.

The ACLU also hopes to eliminate a new offense codified within the legislation of "smoking while driving."

"No evidence of impairment is required,” Gastañaga said. "Police could stop anyone they think they see smoking, or in cases where say they smell marijuana in a car."

In response to the concerns, Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said, "Governor Northam believes marijuana decriminalization is the right thing to do. He expects the General Assembly will have a robust dialogue about the specifics of how to get there—as always, he will carefully review all legislation that reaches his desk."

The legislation became public Wednesday, and is expected to undergo revision before reaching the House and Senate floors.

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