Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Moves Forward

Possession of small amounts of marijuana in the U.S. Virgin Islands will be a civil infraction subject to a $100 or $200 fine, instead of potential jail time and permanent criminal record, if a bill approved in committee Thursday is enacted into law. No senators opposed the measure at Thursday’s hearing.

Separately, the question of medical marijuana will be a ballot question in November. (See Related Links below)

Under current law, simple possession of any amount of marijuana has a penalty of up to one year in prison and $5,000 in fines for the first offense, and up to two years in prison and $2,000 in fines on a second offense.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson leaves possession illegal and leaves in place serious penalties for "manufacture" and sale of marijuana. But anyone arrested with less than one ounce would only commit a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $100. If the person is under age 18, parents or guardians would be notified and the offender would have to complete an "approved drug awareness program." [Substitute Bill 30-0018]

Introducing the measure, Nelson focused on the major negative effects that a conviction for marijuana can have on a V.I. youth, including denial of student loans and being ineligible for many jobs that involve background checks.

Officials from the V.I. Department of Justice and the V.I. Police Department gave qualified support for decriminalization and for the specific legislation, but raised some concerns about depriving police of tools to fight crime.

Chief public defender Samuel Joseph and the V.I. Bar Association, represented by attorney Semaj Johnson, gave more full-throated endorsements of decriminalization, as did Barbara LaRonde, head of the V.I. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

V.I. attorney Russell Pate spoke at length in favor of decriminalization and local attorney Michael Nissman submitted extensive written testimony urging the same.

All the advocates pointed to the nationwide trend toward decriminalization; the costs of investigations, trials and incarcerations, and the massive impact a conviction has on a young person’s life, in comparison to the lesser impact of the illegal substance itself.

Johnson said it is the V.I. Bar Association’s position that the bill "is timely and will ease the strain on the lawyers." It "also presents an opportunity to promote greater police efficiency in prosecuting violent crimes and more effective use of court, probation and Bureau of Corrections resources," he said.

While police have said in past hearings on medical marijuana that possession is rarely charged, Johnson said V.I. lawyers "are often appointed by the Superior Court to defend indigent clients arrested for simple marijuana possession offenses" and, if the bill is passed, "the time and energy of appointed members of the Bar may be more effectively allocated towards processing more serious offenses including violent crimes, property crimes and drug trafficking and distribution offenses."

Also while many marijuana cases "are ultimately dismissed or pled, filtering marijuana possession arrests through prosecutors’ offices, the courts and probationary supervision after release consumes significant Superior Court resources," so decriminalizing has the potential to save considerable money and "lighten the burden on the Superior Court’s growing docket," he said.

Assistant Police Commissioner Thomas Hannah testified in support of the idea, but against doing it now.

"Possibly we should do so at some future point but not at this time," Hannah said. He said police rarely charge just for simple possession, but may use it as part of plea arrangements or in negotiations.

"There haven’t been enough studies to show the benefits outweigh the harm," he said, a point disputed by several other testifiers. "Also unlike a pill or a shot, there are no regulations on content or dosage," he said.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Wayne Anderson said the Department of Justice supports the final form of the bill but emphasized that did not mean Justice supported legalization.

Anderson said their support "is based on the benefit to the community of not prosecuting" and "recognizing its use is so widespread it may not be good to create criminal records for minor offenses."

Voting to send the bill out of committee with a favorable recommendation were Sens. Craig Barshinger, Sammuel Sanes, Clarence Payne, Tregenza Roach and Kenneth Gittens. Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Judi Buckley were absent. Buckley was present earlier in the hearing. Noncommittee members Nelson and Sen. Diane Capehart were also present.

The committee voted down a bill that sought to change appointment of members to the State Council of the Interstate Compact for the Supervision of Adult Offenders by removing the Legislature’s vote on the governor’s appointees.

“The bill attempts to create a model that is similar to the United States’ Interstate Compact for the Supervision of Adult Offenders. By following that model, we will be able to remove the advice and consent mandate and fill the vacant positions,” said Buckley, the sponsor.

Attorney Douglass Dick, a member of the Interstate Commission, testified that a “review of the statutes from other states shows only the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia require the advice and consent for the appointment of the Governor’s appointees.”

Dick said the USVI has been a member of the Interstate Compact since 1998. The council is mandated to regulate the movement and supervision between states of offenders currently under community supervision. It is designed to ensure public safety and to create an effective and efficient means of transferring and tracking offenders between states.

“This seems to be a win-win situation because the compact can keep track of offenders and the offenders could have someone to follow up with for medical or employment reasons," he said, before asking what penalties there could be "if the Virgin Islands continue to be in default because of the lack of appointees to the council.”

“According to a letter addressed to the governor from general counsel for the Interstate Commission for Adult Offender Supervision, stiff penalties may be implemented against participating councils who are in default. The penalties include fines, fees, costs or suspension from the compact," Dick said.

Senators were not interested in giving up the Legislature’s say in who sits on the commission, however.

“In the past, the governor recommended several nominees; however, lawmakers did not approve them because of the lack of trust of the Executive Branch," Barshinger said.

“There is no excuse. The executive body must send down qualified individuals to be considered by this legislation. We can’t vote on members if they are not presented to us," said Gittens, the committee chairman.

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