Friday, December 9, 2022

‘Oath to uphold the law’: Historic Triangle prosecutors plan no change in handling marijuana cases

(WYDaily/Courtesy Pixabay)
(WYDaily/Courtesy Pixabay)

Decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has been a hot topic around the United States for decades.

On Jan. 3, Norfolk’s top prosecutor, Gregory Underwood, ignited a fire of his own, releasing a letter saying he will not prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.

Instead, those charges would simply be dropped or dismissed.

In Greater Williamsburg, however, prosecutors have differing opinions.

Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan Green said he is not an opponent of marijuana decriminalization or legalization, but doesn’t believe it’s his place to decide which parts of the law he prosecutes.

“I took an oath to uphold the law of Virginia and it’s not my place to tell the legislature ‘You missed the boat on this one, I’m not going to prosecute it,’” Green said.

Green said he always reviews the facts of a case before he decides whether he is going to prosecute it. He said prosecutorial discretion is “an incredibly important thing” but case-specific.

York County and Poquoson Commonwealth’s Attorney Benjamin Hahn echoed Green’s opinion, adding his office prosecutes many misdemeanor offenses that “other offices do not prosecute.”

“Likewise, we continue to prosecute possession of marijuana cases because the General Assembly, in its infinite wisdom, has determined that possession of marijuana should be unlawful because use of the drug is contrary to the public interest,” Hahn said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Further, Hahn said he did not believe law enforcement makes a concerted effort to seek out and charge individuals with marijuana possession offenses, but rather they “stumble upon such illegality.”

“Surely it is not in the public interest for law enforcement officers and/or prosecutors to ignore a law they have sworn to uphold because they disagree with the law or, worse, because they seek to reap political benefit by doing so,” Hahn said.

Change

Green said he believes there is room for reform in marijuana laws, but it must be done in a systematic, well-planned way.

“I have a role in lobbying for change in the law,” Green said.

Green said there are some other laws he’s interested in seeing changed, but until then, he will continue prosecuting them. Green declined to specify which laws he was referring to.

The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys reviews matters and, if members agree on a particular issue, the group will lobby or go to the General Assembly.

Green is a member of VACA. He said the group has not come to a consensus on whether marijuana laws should be changed. He said the opinions have ranged from decriminalization to legalization and everything in between.

“I’m not one that says ‘Hey, it’s good the way it is, there should be no changes,’” Green said.

Green believes legalization would require a lengthy period of preparation to ensure any marijuana sold would be done safely and in a regulated way.

“Marijuana technology people have access to, that is not what many of our parents grew up with,” Green said. “They can produce marijuana with record levels of THC. Just like you can brew moonshine with a high alcohol content.”

Even if marijuana was legalized and regulated, Green said it could increase intoxicant-related crimes such as driving under the influence.

In the statement, Hahn said his office’s prosecution of marijuana possession charges does not mean it “reflects any agreement with the wisdom of the legislation.”

“Many years ago, when I was a City Attorney, I would remind the governing body that it was not my responsibility to keep them from enacting foolish laws but only to keep them from breaking the law,” Hahn said. “The General Assembly, as the elected representatives of the citizens of Virginia, is uniquely qualified to weigh the competing societal interests regarding marijuana. I do not believe it is proper for members of the Executive Branch to substitute their judgment for that expressed by the elected representatives of the people.”

Related story from our sister publication, Southside Daily: Commonwealth’s Attorney in Norfolk no longer prosecuting simple pot possession

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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