In a unanimous vote last Tuesday, Morgantown City Council became the first municipality in West Virginia to effectively decriminalize possession.
Cannabis decriminalization models focus on penalties, taking jail time off the table and greatly reducing fines. Morgantown’s ordinance lowers the misdemeanor crime of possession of less than 15 grams in city limits to a $15 fine and no jail time.
This is a significant step from the state code penalties, by which an individual can receive between 90 days and 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for simply possessing a plant.
There are so many reasons to address the harm these heavy-handed policies cause.
The War on Drugs has been a major contributor to mass criminalization and incarceration, entangling hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system, overcrowding jails, and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. When the ACLU analyzed cannabis possession arrests in the United States between 2001 and 2010, on average, Black people were almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, despite continual evidence that Black and white people use cannabis at comparable rates.
Likewise, the Drug Policy Alliance reported in 2017 that while Black people make up 13 percent of the US population, they account for 29 percent of drug arrests and 35 percent of people incarcerated for drug violations, including possession alone. At its heart, this is an issue of equity and racial justice.
In a nation where support of full cannabis legalization is on the rise and communities are passing decriminalization legislation, it is past time to rethink our stance on cannabis, and to right the many wrongs inflicted on individuals, families, and communities by drug enforcement.
There are still many problems to be solved.
State police, Monongalia County Sheriff’s deputies, and WVU law enforcement could still enforce existing state and federal law, and it’s possible for Morgantown Police to choose to charge an individual under the state code. And while a $15 fine is much less of a burden, a misdemeanor charge can still have consequences like loss of employment or housing, suspended driver’s license, restrictions on access to federal student loans, or threats to one’s immigration status.
One ordinance at the municipal level cannot undo the damage of the War on Drugs and decades of aggressive drug enforcement policy. But this step taken by the Morgantown City Council is an important one.
This ordinance sends the message that locking people up or setting excessive fines for small amounts of cannabis should not be a priority. It reminds our elected officials throughout the state that West Virginians are ready to move forward on decriminalizing cannabis and moving toward medical and recreational legalization.
We are grateful to the Morgantown City Council for leading the way on cannabis decriminalization in West Virginia, and for all those who came out to express their support for this effort.
The ACLU-WV has created a toolkit for communities interested in cannabis decriminalization to help guide advocates and activists through this process. We are happy to share this with more communities and help those around the state make progress on this issue.
Anyone interested can contact Community Outreach Director Mollie Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.