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Fadel Allassan

A New Generation Takes the Forefront in Gun Control Debate

(Editor's Note: This is part three of a four part series by the Student Journalists of theVCU Capital News Service. Alexandra Sosik has prepared a timeline of school shootings that is available here.)

By Alexandra Sosik and Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

For the second time in as many months, thousands of students throughout the country united in a national school walkout last week, demanding government action on gun control with their piercing cry of “never again.”

The walkout marked 19 years since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire in Columbine High School in Colorado, murdering 12 fellow students and a teacher. In the aftermath of that bloodbath, President Bill Clinton urged Congress to pass gun control laws. But nothing happened then – or after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 or Las Vegas last fall.

But after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, the political winds seemed to have shifted in favor of gun control. What made the difference? Generation Z – roughly defined as those born in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.

On March 24, 17-year-old Harry Kelso stood atop a van with a megaphone in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He looked at the crowd of some 5,000 gun control advocates gathered before him at the Richmond March for Our Lives.

“I pray for the school year without the drills and the hide-and-lock exercises we’ve experienced since elementary school that remind us of the ever-present danger we face,” Kelso, a senior at Hermitage High School in Henrico, told the crowd. “I pray for the day I don’t have to pray about this anymore.”

Cameron Kasky – the 17-year-old firebrand and Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who made a name challenging Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall – echoed a similar message at the main rally happening simultaneously in Washington, D.C. More than 800,000 people attended that demonstration.

“My generation, having spent our entire lives seeing mass shooting after mass shooting, has learned our voices are powerful and our votes matter,” Kasky said. “We must educate ourselves and start having conversations that keep our country moving forward. And we will. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come.”

Kelso and Kasky, in Richmond and D.C., respectively, were two of the many voices participating in the March for Our Lives – a protest sparked by the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. The protest, like a school walkout staged 10 days earlier, was organized primarily by high school-age youths.

It all started Feb. 16, two days after the shooting in Parkland, when the hashtag #NeverAgain began trending on Twitter. That became the impetus for a rally that was originally planned for Washington but then spread to cities and towns across the nation and world.

The movement, inspired by tragedy and fueled by anger, has used social media to galvanize members of Generation Z. Among other tactics, they have confronted businesses and excoriated political leaders who accept financial donations from the National Rifle Association.

The students have had some success. Just weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Florida enacted a gun-control law that bans rapid-fire “bump stocks” and raises the minimum age for buying a firearm from 18 to 21. Although Virginia did not follow suit, Democratic legislators have formed a committee to consider ways to stop gun violence, and Republican lawmakers appointed a panel to bolster school safety.

It’s not unusual to see Kasky or other survivors of the Parkland shooting such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez on cable news promoting their cause nationally. In Richmond, students such as Kelso and Armstrong High School freshman Corey Stuckey lead the charge.

The recent activity among young people surrounding gun control has been a long time coming.

Since 1982, there have been 98 shootings in the U.S. in which three or more people were killed. Sixteen of those incidents happened at schools. Of all mass shootings, Marjory Stoneman Douglas had the seventh-highest number of fatalities; Sandy Hook ranked fourth; and Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed in 2007, was third.

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 children and six staff members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In response, parents created the Sandy Hook Promise to “prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.”

But the Sandy Hook tragedy did not prompt governmental action on gun control. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, explained why such incidents don’t necessarily result in new laws.

“The Columbine shootings have energized the gun-control debate, and moreover, they have given the emotional edge to the gun-control advocates,” Sabato told the Denver Post. “However, an edge in a debate is not an edge in Congress or the state legislatures.”

Today’s generation of students advocating gun control faces a similar test, and questions remain about whether they can impact the 2018 midterm election.

“One of the most difficult times for a movement is after the initial burst of energy when grinding work needs to be done,” said Derek Sweetman of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. “The movement will not end on Election Day, but I do expect many students in the movement will view the results as a measure of their influence, and therefore will work toward that date.”

The Sandy Hook survivors were too young to understand the magnitude of their tragedy, much less utilize technology to express their emotions. The Columbine survivors lived in a pre-digital age. The students leading the #NeverAgain movement, Sweetman said, are in the right place at the right time.

“Our political environment has destabilized some established political truths, and that has left more room for real action than we saw after Sandy Hook,” Sweetman said. “The students are taking advantage of that.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said the students’ efforts have already been more successful than previous attempts to influence gun policies. For example, Kaine noted, Walmart agreed to stop selling firearms to people under 21; Kroger decided to stop selling guns altogether in its Fred Meyer stores; and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles.

Kaine, a Democrat, also credited activity in Congress to young activists. A spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March lifted a decades-long ban that prevented the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on the causes of gun violence. In addition, the bill prods federal agencies to upload records into the background-check system for gun purchases.

“I had grown somewhat despondent in my efforts with the General Assembly and Congress. But then I saw the students of this country ... standing up and saying to adults, ‘What matters more – our safety or political contributions?’” Kaine told students at the March rally in Richmond. “Now I have more hope because of you.”

Scott Barlow, a member of the Richmond School Board, said he has been inspired by the students’ grassroots activism.

“Students haven’t had the opportunity to lend their voice in this debate. Now they’re bringing the perspective of people who are most impacted by school shootings, and the most impacted by gun violence in our city,” Barlow said about the rally. “It was the first time in a long time I felt optimistic about our ability to legislate gun safety.”

Ex-Gov. Wilder Sues VCU Over Assistant’s Harassment Claims

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder is suing Virginia Commonwealth University and its government school, which bears his name, claiming his administrative assistant was the subject of verbal harassment.

The complaint was filed in Richmond’s Circuit Court on Monday. It asserts that the dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, John Accordino, verbally assaulted and abused Angelica Bega, Wilder’s administrative assistant, last November.

Accordino called Bega “obscene names,” threatened to fire her, accused her of violating human resources rules and “questioned and insulted her intelligence,” according to the complaint.

The complaint says VCU President Michael Rao refused to properly address Accordino’s actions. It says the university’s vice president and provost, Gail Hackett, conducted a “farcical and corrupt investigation” after Wilder met with her and Rao to notify them about Bega’s allegations. Rao and Hackett are both named as defendants.

When Wilder met with Rao, Hackett and Kevin Allison, Rao’s senior assistant, Hackett assured everyone present that Bega did not want to report Accordino to the university, according to the court document. However, the lawsuit says, Bega later denied to Wilder she had ever told Hackett that and stated “unequivocally” that she wanted to move forward with a complaint to the university.

“Upon being confronted with Ms. Bega’s statement, it was conceded Ms. Bega had never stated that she did not wish for her complaint to move forward,” the court document says.

The lawsuit says Wilder told Rao and Hackett that the provost’s office was “compromised and unable to faithfully process” Bega’s complaint. Wilder then reported Accordino’s actions to VCU’s Office of Human Resources as sexual harassment and racial and sexual discrimination.

The suit says Wilder, who holds the rank of distinguished professor at VCU, was not present when the incident between Accordino and Bega occurred, but Kristine Artello, an assistant professor at the Wilder School, notified Wilder of the incident.

Accordino has been the dean of the Wilder School for one year. Before that, he held the position on an interim basis since July 2016.

A spokesperson for VCU refused to comment but said the university has not been served with a lawsuit.

Civil Liberties Groups Oppose Agreement on Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Minority and low-income advocacy groups are joining the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the General Assembly’s bipartisan compromise that would increase the threshold at which a theft is considered a felony.

Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the Virginia ACLU, said the proposal is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.

Under current law, a person who steals an item valued at more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny.HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise that threshold to $500 – an increase Democrats have advocated.

Republicans agreed to the legislation because it also would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision.

Farrar said that the $500 threshold still would be too low and that the legislation could lead to poor people being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t make restitution.

“It is a racial justice issue, a women’s rights issue and an economic justice issue,” said a statement issued by the ACLU and other groups. “The ‘compromise’ as agreed to would continue to affect women and people of color disparately, as well as keep many poor people under indefinite looming threat of additional consequences under the criminal justice system.”

Justice Forward, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Loudoun County Branch of the NAACP, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Virginia Organizing joined the Virginia ACLU in opposing the agreement.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, as well as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, announced the agreement to raise the felony theft threshold last week. Northam hailed it as a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform” as members of both parties in the General Assembly agreed to push through legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted 98-2 in favor of HB 1550. It has been referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Last month, the Senate passed SB 105, 36-3. It is now before the House Rules Committee.

6 Months After Charlottesville, Mother of Slain Activist Shares Message of Tolerance

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Six months after Heather Heyer was killed protesting a neo-Nazi rally, a memorial at the site of her death is still being showered with gifts, mementos and flowers. But it has also been vandalized, according to Heyer’s mother – a reminder of the hatred that took her daughter’s life.

For many, the riot triggered by far-right protesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 exposed the underbelly of hatred and racism in America, and the months since then have been about coming to terms with that reality. But for Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, the half-year has been hallmarked by efforts to promote the values Heyer stood for – and eventually died for – in Charlottesville.

“She wanted everybody treated equally and fairly. That was a lifelong passion for her,” Bro said Sunday.

Bro said she is getting used to a new lifestyle after her daughter’s death. She has had speaking engagements and preached a message of empowerment at the MTV Video Music Awards and on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Reporters have constantly been at her door. She is working with a public relations firm and is hiring a press agent and speaker’s bureau to help her manage the demands.

She said she has been surprised that people want to hear what she has to say. But she hopes to empower them to fight prejudice and intolerance.

“It’s not about me, and it’s not really about my daughter. It’s more that people are horrified to realize how entrenched the hatred is,” Bro said. “I think that addressing people in a calm and rational manner not only reassures people but gives them a little bit of hope about how we can fix this.”

The nation is still reeling from the events of Aug. 11-12, when far-right activists gathered in Charlottesville for what they claimed was a protest opposing the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.

It quickly devolved into mayhem when the so-called “alt-right” protesters clashed with those who showed up to oppose them. One far-right protester drove a car into a group of counterprotesters – killing Heyer, who was 32 years old, and injuring 19 others.

Immediately after Heyer’s death, Bro started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to help pay for her daughter’s funeral costs. When the funeral was over, the fund still had more than $200,000.

Using her daughter’s story to amplify a positive message, Bro then established the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will give scholarships to high school students.

“I said, ‘There’s no way people think we need this kind of money for the funeral itself.’ That tells me people want to be a part of whatever they feel Heather was doing,” Bro said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do something responsible with this money.’ All this money was coming in, and I wanted to be held accountable for it.’”

The foundation will grant scholarships to students at Charlottesville High School and William Monroe High School, which Heyer attended, in nearby Stanardsville.. Bro said the money will go to students who want to advocate for social justice.

“We’re not looking to create new advocates. We’re looking to help advocates who are already in activism to further their education,” Bro said.

In the face of it all, Bro is a mother deeply grieving the loss of her daughter.

She remembers her daughter as a young adult who was trying to be the best grown-up she could be, including working three jobs to be self-sufficient. Heyer was a paralegal and worked as a bartender and waitress in the evening.

“She was a go-getter, and I was proud of her for that,” Bro said.

Bro visited her daughter’s impromptu memorial Sunday. The street has been named “Heather Heyer Way,” and the words “no more hate” – among other messages – are written in chalk on the side of a building next to the spot.

Bro said she thinks America has made moves toward love and understanding since last summer’s violent demonstration.

“This was not a wonderful day, but I feel like we’re moving forward in the world. We’re taking this as a rallying point, and people are stepping up to the plate,” Bro said.

“A lot of white people were like, ‘Well this doesn’t really apply to me.’ And this time, it slapped them in the face and showed them this applies to everybody.”

White supremacists have not yielded in their vileness since the rally, Bro said. She has kept her daughter’s ashes in a hidden location so they won’t be tampered with by racists.

“From what I’ve learned, they crave either silence – where everybody ignores when they come to town so they feel vindicated because no one seems to care,” Bro said. “Or they crave violence, so they will pick a progressive city like Charlottesville that’s not accustomed to having a violent outburst like that.”

In some ways, the “Unite the Right” rally united the country, Heyer said, but it also further divided Americans.

“We’re trying to find ways to bridge some of that gap with difficult conversations,” Bro said. “I’ve seen people, from both sides, to work to bridge that gap. That’s been encouraging to me.”

Bipartisan Deal Will Raise Felony Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia is one of two states where people convicted of stealing items valued at $200 become felons. But a bipartisan deal to raise the threshold and improve restitution will help some people recover from an otherwise life-altering mistake, a delegate says.

The agreement announced Thursday by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would increase Virginia’s felony theft threshold – the lowest in the nation – to $500 and improve assurances that victims would receive restitution.

In a compromise Northam called a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform,” members of both parties in the General Assembly will get legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

Republicans agreed to advance bills to raise the bar for what is considered grand larceny theft. In exchange, Democrats agreed to bills that would stiffen laws to give crime victims their court-ordered restitution.

Under current Virginia law, a person who steals an item valued more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny. That threshold is tied with New Jersey for the lowest in the nation, according to a 2015 report by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The new threshold would be $500; anything less would be a misdemeanor under HB 1550 and SB 105, introduced by Del. Leslie Adams, R-Pittsylvania, and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, respectively.

“At $200, Virginia’s current felony larceny threshold is the most severe in the nation,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. “By raising it, we are sending a clear message that theft is a serious crime, but stealing one phone or pair of boots should not ruin a person’s life.”

Republicans would not have agreed to a deal on raising the threshold without changes to restitution laws, said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox. HB 483 would require the state locate victims of crimes and pay them restitution. HB 484would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision. Both were introduced by Del. Robert Bell, R- Albemarle.

The Virginia ACLU, which supports raising the grand larceny threshold, is reluctant to support the agreement. Spokesperson Bill Farrar said a $500 bar – which would be the first change to the law since 1980 – would still be too low compared to inflation. Additionally, Farrar said, Bell’s legislation could put poor people in a position of being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t pay restitution.

Crime victims in Virginia's state courts are owed more than $400 million in outstanding restitution, according to a 2016 Crime Commission report.

“This is money that crime victims need to pay their bills and rebuild their lives,” Bell said. “They have to come to court, testify under oath, and many have to describe the most frightening moment of their life to strangers, only to be cross-examined and scrutinized in the media. The least we can do is ensure that they receive the restitution that the justice system promises to them.”

Virginia Likely to Expand Medical Marijuana

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia inched closer to greatly expanding medical marijuana use this week after legislation passed the Senate with unanimous support – three days after its companion bill was likewise approved by the House of Delegates.

SB 726, which passed 38-0 on Monday, would let doctors issue certifications for patients to use cannabis oil to treat the symptoms of diagnosed conditions or diseases. The House version of the bill – HB 1251 – passed 98-0 on Friday.

With similar bills approved in both chambers, the legislation appears likely to be headed to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and physician, who has said he would sign such a measure into law.

Doctors in Virginia currently can issue medical marijuana certifications only to people with intractable epilepsy. If Northam signs the bill, the new law would let doctors issue certifications to treat any condition.

Both bills were a recommendation of Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care, which researches health policy options for the state.

The chief sponsors of SB 726 were Republican Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier and Democratic Sen. David Marsden of Fairfax. The chief sponsors of HB 1251 were Republican Dels. Ben Cline of Rockbridge and Glen Davis of Virginia Beach and Democratic Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn and Kaye Kory, both of Fairfax.

“The literature on medical cannabis is going to be evolving rapidly now, and because of this, it is not a decision that should be in the hands of the legislature,” said Dunnavant, who also is a doctor. “Instead, it should be with physicians.”

Virginia is poised to join 29 other states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three U.S. territories have a similar policy.

The legislation is considered a major victory for marijuana-law reform advocates.

“This will bring relief to thousands of Virginians suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease and PTSD,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the marijuana law reform advocacy group, Virginia NORML. “We could not be happier with the unanimous passage of these bills.”

An April 2017 poll by Quinnipiac University indicated overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana in Virginia. About 94 percent of Virginian voters polled expressed support; 59 percent backed legalizing small amounts of the drug for recreational use.

From Home, Virginians Can Keep an Eye on Legislators

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It may not offer the drama of “House of Cards,” but an initiative at the Virginia Capitol is lifting the curtain on the workings of the General Assembly.

In January, the House and Senate started live-streaming and archiving videos of committee hearings. On a computer or cellphone, Virginians can now watch – from the comfort of their homes or offices – what used to require a trip to the Capitol.

“We’re already hearing about a lot of people watching at home and following these debates you could only follow in Richmond in the past,” said Meghan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The General Assembly was prodded into offering videos of its committee meetings by the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia.

During the 2017 legislative session, the organization streamed committee and subcommittee hearings using iPads and college interns. The project, called Eyes on Richmond, was part of an effort to hold Virginia’s legislature – notorious for a lack of transparency – to account, said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia.

The videos from Eyes on Richmond weren’t Emmy quality, and the audio sometimes was hard to understand. But the project received an award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in November.

The General Assembly followed suit and began providing live streams and video recordings – at the committee level only – when the 2018 legislative session opened.

The streams and archives are accessible from each committee’s webpage. Those webpages can be found on the General Assembly’s website.

Eyes on Richmond still webcasts and archives many subcommittee meetings. Scholl said the group will continue to do so until the state provides that service.

That likely will happen when the state opens a replacement for the General Assembly Building in 2021. A spokesperson for House Speaker Kirk Cox said Monday that the commonwealth will provide video of subcommittee meetings in the new facility.

The state has been broadcasting House and Senate floor sessions since the 1970s and putting them online for a decade. But Scholl said the most substantive debate, as well as testimony from citizens, happens at the committee and subcommittee levels in the General Assembly.

“We believe very strongly that transparency is necessary in lawmaking,” Scholl said. “Constituents should have access to the actions that are being taken on their behalf.”

State officials said it cost more than $500,000 to set up video streaming of committees in the House and about half that amount in the Senate.

How to watch

For links to videos of floor sessions and committee meetings, go to the General Assembly’s website – http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/ – and click on “Members and session.”

To watch a committee meeting, drill down to the committee’s webpage and then to the agenda for a specific meeting. There, you will find a video link.

For videos of subcommittee meetings, go to EyesOnRichmond.org, a project of the group Progress Virginia.

Eyes on Richmond has four “channels” – websites featuring a different video stream. The project’s home page includes a calendar listing which subcommittee meetings are being webcast on each channel.

Each channel’s home page also has a link to videos of previously recorded subcommittee meetings.

 

GOP Lawmaker Wants Governor’s Support to Ban ‘Sanctuary Cities’

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Republican lawmaker is trying to get the Democratic governor’s support on a bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — a topic that was at the forefront of last year’s gubernatorial election.

Earlier this month, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, introduced a bill that would stop localities from not fully enforcing federal immigration laws.  During a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Cline said he won’t move forward with the bill until he reaches out to Gov. Ralph Northam to see whether  the governor could support a version of the bill.

Northam, however, has expressed doubts over whether such legislation is needed without evidence of any sanctuary cities in Virginia.

While there is no agreed-upon classification for what makes a city a sanctuary, the term is generally used to label localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. No Virginia localities have tried to adopt such policies.

Cline delayed his bill after a back-and-forth with a Northam aide who represented the administration before a House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

The delegate asked Northam’s aide to clarify the governor’s position on sanctuary cities in light of an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch less than a week before November’s election. Northam said he would support a sanctuary cities ban if any Virginia localities tried to adopt the status.

“My understanding is that if there were sanctuary cities, whatever they are, that he would work with you all to address that issue,” said Jae K. Davenport, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Cline asked Davenport whether the governor would support legislation if a locality tried to adopt sanctuary city policies.

“I think you’re trying to get into specifics,” Davenport said. “All I can tell you is that the administration opposes this bill.”

When Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, asked Davenport if the governor had any suggestions on how the bill could be changed to get his support, the deputy secretary indicated the bill’s language was too broad.

The administration would have to work with Cline to “address a problem if it does exist,” Davenport said.

“I accept,” Cline responded, before asking the committee to give him until next Wednesday to speak with Northam.

Cline struck portions of his proposed bill that would have allowed the state to reduce funding to localities that were found to not fully enforce federal immigration laws.

Sanctuary cities became a hot-button issue last year when Northam’s GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, said a vote the Democrat cast as lieutenant governor proved he would not crack down on MS-13, a criminal gang with roots in El Salvador.

When a bill to ban sanctuary cities came before the Senate last year, Republican Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, broke with his party to oppose the legislation, forcing Northam to cast a vote to snap  a 20-20 tie. Northam voted against the bill to kill it.

When a similar bill came back to the Senate for another vote, Norment voted with his GOP colleagues to pass the legislation. The bill was then vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.  

Less than a week before last November’s election, Northam told a Norfolk TV station he would sign a bill to ban sanctuary cities if a Virginia locality tried to become one. But if no localities tried to do so, Northam later said to The Times-Dispatch, he would veto such legislation.

“It’s just bad legislation for the state to tell the cities what they should do,” said Linda Higgins, an advocate representing the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights at a news conference Wednesday.

Disappointed by Norment bill, marijuana law reform advocates refocus agenda

By Fadel Allassan and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Marijuana law reform advocates are refocusing their agenda after Virginia’s Senate majority leader introduced a bill that eliminates jail time for first-offense possession but falls short of decriminalization — a concept he earlier said he would support.

Under the bill by Sen. Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, first-time marijuana possession offenders would be fined but also have a chance to have their records expunged. It isn’t the decriminalization bill Norment told The Virginian-Pilot he supported last November. But a spokesperson for the majority leader now says such a bill, which could have made first-time possession a civil offense, would have little chance of passing the House of Delegates.

“It’s a disappointment to thousands of Virginians and particularly to his constituents, who were looking for him to be the leader on this issue.” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, a marijuana reform advocacy group.

Reform advocates, who gathered at the Virginia 2018 Cannabis Conference in Richmond on Sunday and Monday, said they support the bill despite it not going far enough, but are now focusing their attention on legislation including a measure by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, that would expand the use of medical cannabis in Virginia.

Decriminalization, however, isn’t dead yet in the assembly, and advocates said they support legislation including SB111 by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and HB 1063 by  Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth. But the bills face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled legislature. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he favors decriminalizing simple first-possession charges.

In Virginia, people charged with pot possession as a first offense are typically eligible for a probationary program that gives the chance for a judge to dismiss the charge. Norment’s legislation would make that practice law and instead of dismissal, allow expungement.

“We were expecting a bill that was more analogous to decriminalization, but instead what we see is an expungement bill,” Pedini said.

On another front, advocates said they support Dunnavant’s bill, which would allow medical practitioners to issue certifications to allow patients to use cannabis oil. It has been assigned to the Education and Health Committee and has the backing of the legislature’s Joint Commission on Health Care.

“Those health care decisions should be made by a licensed practitioner, not senators and delegates in Richmond,” Pedini said.

Last year, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill that allows pharmacies to make and sell cannabis oils for treating intractable epilepsy. Dunnavant’s bill allows health care professionals to determine which illnesses can be treated.

Advocates at the conference – which was organized by the advocacy groups Virginia NORML, Cannabis Commonwealth and Virginia Cannabis Group – are also making phone calls and lobbying against a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to strip search people at traffic stops if there is reasonable cause to believe they may possess controlled substances.

The law is intended to battle opioid and fentanyl possession, Pedini said, but could trap  those who legally use marijuana to treat epilepsy.

“What we don’t want to see is a mother and her child driving home to be stopped and strip searched,” Pedini said.

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