- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Breaking with the tough-on-crime stance that defined Virginia Republicans for decades, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie laid out a plan Wednesday to try to keep drug users from ending up incarcerated.

Dubbed “three strikes and you’re in,” Mr. Gillespie’s proposal would keep marijuana users from having to serve jail time until their third convictions for possession.

It’s a smaller step than the marijuana legalization movement that has touched other parts of the country but a major change for Virginia Republicans, who gained control of state government in the 1990s on tough-on-crime promises to end parole and build more prisons.

Mr. Gillespie said he wants to empty the prisons of people he says don’t belong there.

“This policy will reduce the number of Virginians who enter the criminal justice system and help to get treatment to more people,” the Republican candidate says in the plan. “Data show significant racial disparities in marijuana charges. This policy will help address them by providing opportunities to avoid entry into the criminal justice system and encouraging people to get help and reconsider their choices.”

It’s unclear what penalties first- and second-time pot offenders would face, such as fines or community service.

On the policy spectrum, the push moves Mr. Gillespie closer to the calls for decriminalizing pot that his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has embraced and away from the hard-nosed approach to crime traditionally espoused by Republican leaders — including former Gov. George Allen, who won the governor’s mansion in 1994 after vowing to abolish parole for felons and to establish truth-in-sentencing laws.

“Back in the ‘90s, the ‘three strikes, you’re out,’ tough-on-crime agenda worked politically very well for Virginia Republicans,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “A lot has changed in public opinion and attitudes since then, especially regarding marijuana, for which there is much wider acceptance now. The softer GOP posturing reflects that shift in public opinion.”

Dave Albo, chairman of the Virginia House Judiciary Committee, said the Gillespie plan also would mark a shift for the Republican-led General Assembly.

“It is a significant change of policy because every single bill that tried to decriminalize marijuana has been killed in my courts of justice committee for the past decade,” said Mr. Albo, a Republican.

Mr. Northam’s campaign said Mr. Gillespie’s Republican Party has been the stumbling block to criminal justice system changes pushed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

“When he stands with Republicans who have stymied criminal justice reform efforts simply because they were proposed by a Democratic administration, that’s politics at its worst,” said David Turner, communications director for Mr. Northam. “However, we’re glad he’s come to see the wisdom the initiatives Gov. McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Northam have fought for during the last four years. I guess showing up late is better than never.”

Mr. Northam has said Virginia’s drug sentencing laws disproportionately harm blacks, and he has called for decriminalizing marijuana. He said money spent to keep marijuana offenders incarcerated would be better spent on rehabilitation programs.

Under Virginia law, possession of less than a half-ounce of pot is classified as a misdemeanor. First-time offenders face up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Second and subsequent offenses carry up to a year of jail time and a $2,5000 fine, according to a breakdown from NORML, a group that wants to eliminate criminal penalties for personal possession of marijuana.

First-time offenders can receive probation instead of jail time on a misdemeanor charge as long as they pay for drug treatment and drug testing. They also may be ordered to perform community service.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of NORML, welcomed Mr. Gillespie’s proposal.

“I am really excited to see this come from Mr. Gillespie,” Ms. Pedini said. “This is certainly a step in the right direction.”

The Virginia State Crime Commission, meanwhile, is studying the decriminalization of simple possession of marijuana, which could reduce the punishment to a fine, as opposed to jail time and a criminal record. It has a meeting on the subject slated for late October.

State lawmakers passed legislation this year that scrapped an automatic six-month driver’s license suspension for first-time simple possession offenders unrelated to driving offenses. The law allows a judge the option of giving additional community service instead of automatically suspending a driver’s license.

A Quinnipiac University Poll released in April found that voters support allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use by a 59 percent to 35 percent margin. More than 60 percent of Democrats and independents supported the idea, compared with 34 percent of Republicans.

A generational divide to decriminalization also has been found. The survey showed 78 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds backing the idea and 60 percent of those 65 and older opposed.

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