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Norment to seek change in marijuana law

First offenders charged with possession of marijuana would no longer risk jail time and would have a chance to purge their records under a bill to be proposed by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment Jr., R-James City County.

His proposal would not apply to anyone other than a first offender and would not do away with the fine already in state law, Norment told supporters at his annual pre-General Assembly breakfast meeting. A first offense for simple possession of marijuana now is a misdemeanor, punished by a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to 30 days.

But Norment’s long-promised marijuana reform proposal, which he outlined for the first time Monday, would do away with jail time for first offenders, although judges often already decline to jail first offenders.

The bill would allow judges to erase records of arrest and conviction for a first offense of possession of marijuana if the defendant meets several conditions, including payment of any fine and attendance at any drug program,

He said the measure would not make recreational marijuana use legal, as several other states, mostly recently California, have done.

The real key to his approach, Norment said later, is that if a first offender meets all the conditions, the record of arrest on a national criminal database would be removed.

“That can follow you forever,” he added, even if a judge allows for what’s called a deferred disposition, which is a formal dismissal of the charge after a defendant has met certain conditions, such as not being arrested again.

“I represent a lot of young people, a lot of college students,” he told his supporters. “I’m looking to give some of these people a hand, provided they do what they’re supposed to.”

Norment’s proposal isn’t decriminalization, said American Civil Liberties Union-Virginia executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

She said it doesn’t tackle some of the most important problems with enforcement of marijuana laws, including the way some police officers use the law to target minorities.

A Virginia Crime Commission study, for instance, found that nearly half of first offenders arrested for marijuana are African-Americans, although only 20 percent of Virginia residents are black. Studies show that blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, Gastañaga said.

The ACLU believes simple possession should not be a criminal offense, she said.

But Norment said even his more modest proposal will face a tough time in the General Assembly, where several members in both the House and Senate have opposed any easing of drug laws, including marijuana.

He said that would probably apply for any expansion of medical marijuana, even though he’s been impressed by its effectiveness.

“Maybe you’ve seen the videos … for advanced Parkinson’s disease, it can really reduce the tremors,” he told his supporters, adding that seeing that had hit home with him because a longtime friend is dealing with the disease.

But last year, a House Courts of Justice subcommittee killed a proposal for a blanket immunity from prosecution for patients with a prescription for medical marijuana. The measure also would have allowed doctors and pharmacists to distribute marijuana when used for treatment.

Virginia law now allows the use of oils derived from marijuana — compounds that do not make people high — to treat intractable epilepsy. State law also says doctors may prescribe marijuana and THC, a psychoactive compound in the plant, to treat cancer and glaucoma.

Norment also told the group that he expects health care will be a focus of attention during the 2018 session, noting that roughly 40 percent of people surveyed in exit polls after the election identified it as the top issue.

That’ll mean debating using Affordable Care Act funds to expand Medicaid to cover all Virginians with incomes less than than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Norment is not sure a majority of the General Assembly is ready to expand Medicaid to that extent.

But he said a small working group of state senators is looking at a ways to increase the number of people covered by Medicaid, as well as at ways to reduce the cost of health care generally, possibly by doing away with the state’s Certificate of Public Necessity program, which requires hospitals and other medical facilities to win state regulatory approval for openings and expansions. Critics say that program reduces the kind of competition that can bring down costs, but hospitals contend it’s the only way to ensure they can afford to maintain a full array of services, including money-losing ones.

Currently, Virginia’s Medicaid program covers few adults. Elderly people and those with disabilities can get Medicaid if their incomes are less than 80 percent of the poverty level — a cut off of $9,648 for a single person. Also eligible for Medicaid in Virginia are parents with income less than 30 percent of the poverty level, which translates to income of no more than $4,872 for a single parent of a single child.

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535

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