- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 28, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A proposal to eliminate jail time for marijuana possession in Virginia, instead making it punishable by a maximum $100 civil penalty, has been quickly snuffed out by a Republican-controlled Senate panel.

The state Senate Courts of Justice Committee rejected Sen. Adam Ebbin’s decriminalization bill Wednesday on a party-line 9-5 vote.

Ebbin, an Alexandria Democrat, argued that criminalization of marijuana has failed to reduce use of the drug and has made criminals out of nonviolent citizens.

“We have legislated fear of a plant into our criminal code,” he told the committee.

He said marijuana prohibition burdens Virginia taxpayers to the tune of $67 million a year in law enforcement costs.

Ebbin’s measure was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, which drew attention to racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

The ACLU says African Americans are 2.8 more times likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though they use the drug at roughly equal rates.

The bill drew opposition from the Virginia State Police, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.

Opponents argued that decriminalization is the first step toward legalization, which they said would lead to increased marijuana use by young people, encourage gang violence and devastate minority communities.

Legislation is still alive in the General Assembly that would legalize two derivatives of the marijuana plant for treatment of epilepsy.

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