Two of Del’s bills. Sally Hudson seeking to reduce the sentence for simple drug possession and facilitate recovery were filed Friday by a House of Delegates Courts subcommittee, likely ending their progress this session.
Among the bills introduced this session by Hudson, a Democrat from Charlottesville, are three bills aimed at criminal drug possession charges. They range from a specific small issue of drug residue charges to a broader proposed change in the way criminal possession charges are handled.
The most significant of the bills, HB 612, sought to end criminal prosecution for simple possession of narcotics in order to eliminate prison sentences of more than one year for possession of a small amount of controlled substances for personal use. , Hudson said.
“Mere possession means the kind of quantities that could be used personally. It’s not about distribution or drug dealers,” she said. “Because a felony prosecution could mean a sentence of up to 10 years, what it does is reduce the maximum sentence a person could face for simple drug possession is a misdemeanor, which is a maximum prison term of the year.”
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Under current law, a person caught in possession of Schedule I or Schedule II controlled substances – which include cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine – can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Possession of items containing drug residue can also result in felony charges, which Hudson has sought to address with HB 619. The bill would change the law so that mere residue of any substance that is not in quantity usable or countable dosage unit would not give rise to a criminal prosecution.
Hudson said the question was nonpartisan. She noted that similar legislation has been passed in more conservative states than Virginia, including Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Despite Hudson’s perception of the bill as a nonpartisan issue, House Republicans voted to table HBs 612 and 619 during the subcommittee hearing. Of the. Vivian E. Watts, D-Annandale, voted against the HB 619 table, but joined the Republican majority in voting for the HB 612 table.
If a tabled bill can be reconsidered by a committee during a session of the General Assembly, this is extremely rare. Introducing a bill is generally seen as a quieter way to defeat a bill.
Various people spoke in favor of the bills on Friday, including Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, and Nathan Mitchell of the Virginia Recovery Advocacy Project. Most speakers highlighted the potential for the bills to create a better path forward for people struggling with addiction and the potential for the legislation to save the courts money that could be redirected to drug programs. treatment, such as drug courts.
Although the bills received support from some Commonwealth lawyers, Lori DiGiosia, Deputy Chief Commonwealth Solicitor for Stafford County, spoke out against them.
Speaking on HB 619, DiGiosia said she couldn’t understand how there could be a difference between residuals and possession, arguing that having possessed and used a drug is “no better or different than possess but not to have used it”.
She pointed to other options available to prosecutors, including drug courts, which allow defendants to receive treatment instead of jail time and often involve the reduction or removal of charges.
“The elements that [a drug was] knowingly and intentionally possessed have yet to be proven by the Commonwealth. We have the power to make many different alternatives and, despite the current rhetoric, prosecutors are not seeking to try and convict people guilty of possession and addiction crimes,” DiGiosia said. “We’re trying a lot of different alternative arrangements as a whole and I would say the prosecutors in Virginia are being progressive in trying to make sure that we don’t end up with people having a felony.”
“Drug overdoses are a problem in all areas of Virginia, including some very deep red spots, and I think the little political consideration these proposals have garnered is just one more reminder of the delay in Virginia in terms of more humane justice reform,” Hudson said. “It wasn’t about trying to turn Virginia into California; it was about trying to help Virginia catch up with the rest of the South in how we deal with our drug problems.
The last of Hudson’s drug possession-related bills, HB 618, is still pending. HB 618 seeks to end criminal possession as a barrier crime to employment opportunities. Given Friday’s hearing, Hudson said she’s not optimistic, but hopes her colleagues will consider the adverse effects of the criminal possession charge on someone’s economic opportunity and recovery. .
Locally, Albemarle County District Attorney Jim Hingeley and his office have been working to avoid criminal possession charges for several months. A supporter of Hudson’s HB 612, Hingeley said it was important for prosecutors to consider the best response to protect both those at risk of illegal drug use and the community.
“We have people dying from overdoses, we have an ongoing opioid crisis and everything is getting worse,” Hingeley said. “So ultimately the question for me is whether the work we’re doing to prosecute people for drug possession crimes is helping us solve the problem, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this it’s not the case.”
Hingeley said lower fees provide similar treatment and alternative options, but have less severe impacts.
“By turning the prosecution of a felony into a misdemeanor, you make almost no difference in the time spent in practice, but all the difference in removing the sentence of a felony conviction itself,” he said. -he declares.
In recent months, Hingeley said his office offered defendants one of three options involving misdemeanor charges.
One is to seek drug testing and treatment, with the charge being dismissed if they complete the treatment. The second, aimed at recreational users, requires defendants to stop using drugs and undergo testing for six months before a dismissal.
The third option is for those who suffer from addiction and do not want treatment. They can plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge, Hingeley said, which is the same test faced by those who opt for the first two options but are unsuccessful.
“This is not a mini drug court. We offer people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs an opportunity to connect with services,” he said. “If they are motivated to connect the services, we offer them an incentive: do it, progress and the charge is cancelled.”
So far, a dozen defendants have been affected by the policy, Hingeley said.