Newly empowered Democrats are pushing ahead on marijuana decriminalization, one in a bevy of issues that had long faced Republican roadblocks. How to go about it is attracting heated debate.
A proposal backed by high-ranking Democrats and Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration is drawing intense criticism from legal justice advocates and some Democratic lawmakers. They argue that it doesn’t go far enough to stem discrimination in marijuana enforcement and that portions of the proposal could exacerbate the impacts of that disparity.
House Bill 972, sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, and Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin — both Democrats from Alexandria — would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense carrying a $50 penalty, instead of a criminal misdemeanor subject to jail time. The measures, drafted closely with the Northam administration, also would increase what is considered a small amount from a half-ounce to an ounce of marijuana.
Critics, including the ACLU of Virginia, argue that albeit small, a civil penalty of no more than $50, enforced by law enforcement officials, could still negatively impact low-income people and people of color, who they argue are disparately searched and prosecuted over marijuana possession.
Criticism of that proposal has yielded another piece of legislation — backed by Attorney General Mark Herring — that was introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, with Del. Josh Cole, D-Fredericksburg, as chief co-patron.
House Bill 1507 would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana — also defined as anything less than an ounce. It maintains that it is illegal to “sell, give, distribute” marijuana or to possess marijuana with the intent to sell, give or distribute.
The debate over how to decriminalize marijuana illustrates the broader debate among Democrats over how to approach issues that were long nonstarters in a GOP-controlled legislature. While eager to move on a number of these issues, some in the party have also advocated measured restraint.
In the backdrop is a growing number of marijuana convictions in Virginia as some other states move toward legalization. Marijuana arrests reached nearly 29,000 in Virginia in 2018, their highest level in at least 20 years, according to Virginia State Police statistics.
It’s unlikely that Democrats will move to fully legalize marijuana this session, leading to the search for a stopgap measure that will allow lawmakers time to study the issue, build consensus and consider the regulation needed to welcome the industry.
The next few weeks will see lawmakers grapple with what the stopgap should look like.
Ebbin’s bill, the only one to be heard in any committee so far, cleared a subcommittee of the Senate judiciary panel Thursday.
There, representatives of the ACLU and Marijuana Justice Virginia, among other advocates, argued that the bill represented a tepid approach to decriminalization that ignores what they see as the most pressing issue: disparity in marijuana enforcement.
The Virginia Crime Commission found that black people constituted 46% of all first-offense possession arrests from 2007 to 2016, despite making up just 20% of Virginia’s population. Attorney General Herring — who cited the data in a recent opinion column — and the ACLU have also argued that marijuana usage rates are comparable between black and white Americans.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, expressed similar concerns during the subcommittee hearing. Morrissey argued that law enforcement officers often cite smelling marijuana as probable cause to search vehicles or personal property — an approach he says disproportionately affects low-income people of color.
He said that even when it doesn’t result in an arrest, it can result in unnecessary stops and searches. Lawmakers debated what language may be added to the bill to address the problem, but ultimately decided to move the bill forward and address the issue later in the legislative process.
“It just doesn’t solve the policing tool that we know is being used based on bias, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a local advocate representing Marijuana Justice Virginia. “Many people are upset about how much more black and brown people are arrested.”
Sheila Bynum Coleman, who last November lost to then-House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, by about 1,300 votes, told the committee that her husband was subject to a search based on what the law enforcement officer cited as the smell of marijuana.
“The police officer said, ‘I smell marijuana, get out of the car,’ ” Bynum Coleman said. “They searched his car. They had my husband drop his pants, drop his underwear, and searched under his scrotum.”
“There were thousands of people who share the same experience,” she added.
Disagreement over Majority Leader Herring and Ebbin’s legislation has also focused on the legal framework within which the civil penalty would be levied.
Carroll Foy argues that by making it a civil fee, people charged would not be entitled to legal representation as they are now, given that marijuana possession carries jail time.
A public defender, Carroll Foy said in an interview that she has represented dozens of people in court charged with marijuana possession who ultimately walked away without convictions. She said that with legal counsel, people can often avoid the stain of a drug conviction on their record, which can affect housing and professional attainment.
Carroll Foy argues that by paying the civil fine, people subject to the civil penalty essentially plead guilty. She said that as written, Herring and Ebbin’s legislation would still result in a drug offense in their records.
“I really do appreciate the effort to address this. I understand people’s hearts are in the right place,” Carroll Foy said. “It’s just practically it doesn’t do what people think it does, so I think the implementation is going to be a problem.”
Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, whose office was part of the drafting of the bill, said the civil penalty would not be marked on citizens’ law enforcement records.
“It would not, it would not, it would not,” he said. “If there’s a line, clarification needed, we’ll add it.”
Moran, a former Arlington County prosecutor, added that the “main focus of the bill is to get marijuana out of the criminal justice system” when it comes to possession of small amounts.
“I think our bill does that.”
Ebbin said he is receptive to criticism of his bill, but called it “a huge leap from where we are now.”
“This is just the first step in the process and addresses some of the most egregious issues that we face now,” said Ebbin, citing the rising number of arrests for simple possession. “This is while we work toward a regulated, structured adult-use model.”
Ebbin also said he updated his bill to make young people found in possession of marijuana subject to child services. A previous version would have labeled them delinquent minors.
Beyond that, Ebbin said he did not anticipate making further changes to his bill. Majority Leader Herring did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Herring said he was supporting the House bill filed by Carroll Foy and Cole, though he remained open to any legislation that made progress on the issue.
“I’m supporting [Carroll Foy and Cole’s bill] because it gets us closer to my goal of decriminalizing as quickly as possible,” Herring said.
Of Majority Leader Herring and Ebbin’s legislation, the attorney general said: “I think it gets us on a path, but I don’t think there should be any penalty at all. This system isn’t working.”
The irregular glass tower that has long defined the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology has disappeared from the logo for the state enterprise that has been based near Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia since its creation more than three decades ago.
Soon, the CIT headquarters will be gone, too. Virginia is preparing to sell the 26-acre property along the Dulles Toll Road in Herndon to help finance a proposed state innovation partnership with a mobile presence wherever high-tech research is done and entrepreneurs gather in Virginia.
The proposed state authority will have its headquarters in Richmond, initially in a shared brick loft on East Broad Street that CIT began leasing last year to plant its flag near the seat of Virginia government.
“The notion that you need a big, physical presence, I don’t think that’s our operating mode,” said Ed Albrigo, president and CEO of CIT, in an interview at its new office in the Gather coworking building in Richmond’s Downtown Arts District.
The General Assembly will begin work this week on legislation to create the Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority. The enterprise would encompass the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority that governs CIT and the Virginia Research Investment Fund. The fund was created four years ago to fuel higher education research in emerging technologies with strong commercial potential.
A new approach
It’s a new way for Virginia to promote economic development that moves the state away from reliance on federal spending, especially on defense, and instead cultivate industries with high-paying jobs driven by technology in a state that has become a business magnet for data centers and high-tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook.
The innovation partnership would operate under a proposed $79.1 million annual budget that includes money set aside for existing state-backed enterprises. Those include the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Prince George County; Virginia Catalyst — formerly the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corp. — in Richmond; and the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, which Virginia Tech runs in Arlington County, with higher education research nodes based in Richmond and three other regions.
The new authority also would benefit from the proceeds of the impending sale of the CIT complex that straddles the Fairfax and Loudoun county line next to the coming Innovation Station on Metro’s Silver Line between downtown Washington and Dulles.
The Department of General Services is negotiating the sale with an unidentified buyer for an unspecified price. The money would go into the state research initiative, with $10 million that Gov. Ralph Northam has earmarked for the Commonwealth Development Opportunity Fund to attract economic investment and new jobs.
The impending sale marks a milepost in the journey of CIT from a long association with Northern Virginia’s technology-driven economy to a committed statewide presence for fulfilling its mission, which is why Albrigo decided to drop the silhouette of its distinctive building near Dulles from the organization’s logo.
The legislation to create the partnership has been endorsed by the Northern Virginia Technology Council and political leaders from the region, who were wary of an attempt last year to merge the CIT into a proposed research consortium.
“I’m really excited about the change to a much more statewide operation,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who is chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and sponsor of the Senate bill to create the new partnership. “Moving to Richmond makes a lot of sense to send that message — and the building is worth a lot of money!”
Money lies at the heart of the proposed authority. It would have separate funds for direct and indirect investments in startup companies, grants to advance commercially promising research, and cultivation of “entrepreneurial ecosystems” to bring together like-minded people who want to start companies based on technological innovation.
“What’s being proposed at the state level will enhance what we’re doing all over the commonwealth,” said Carrie Roth, president and CEO of Activation Capital, which includes the VA Bio+Tech Park in Richmond and subsidiaries that help startup and other companies grow.
The proposed budget for the new authority has raised concerns among higher education institutions in the fledgling cyberinitiative, including Virginia Commonwealth University. The assembly created the initiative with a $20 million budget appropriation in 2018. It signaled last year that it anticipates $20 million in annual funding for the hub in Arlington and regional research nodes in the Richmond area, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and Southwest Virginia.
Northam’s proposed budget includes just $10 million in the first year and $5 million in the second.
“We are ready to go, so it’s just a momentum killer,” said Erdem Topsakal, chair of the VCU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Central Virginia node for the cyberinitiative.
Topsakal lobbied legislators on Wednesday to restore the money as part of a group that included Virginia Tech, George Mason University and Old Dominion University, the leaders of the four regional research nodes.
“Our message is we don’t need to compete against each other,” he said.
Legislators have asked to restore the money in the budgets that the House and Senate will propose next month for the next two fiscal years, beginning on July 1. The budget amendments were filed by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, with support from senators from Roanoke, Fairfax and Fauquier County.
“The more money we have to fund the initiative, it will engender more collaboration,” Hurst said.
Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball, whose office produced the legislation for the new authority, said Thursday that he still supports the governor’s proposed budget for the initiative, known as CCI.
“I am aware of the CCI funding concerns, particularly at the node level, and I expect we will hear more about these concerns,” Ball said in a text message.
The proposed authority would oversee the cyberinitiative, as well as the other centers for excellence financed with separate budget appropriations, but Albrigo said, “CIT is not running these initiatives.”
The new authority would be established on July 1 under the proposed legislation, with CIT as the nonstock corporation that would run its operations. The authority will rename CIT in mid-2021 after a complex transition.
CIT would establish its headquarters in Richmond this year and seek leased space either at its old building or elsewhere in Northern Virginia to maintain a physical presence in the region. The organization already is highly mobile, with employees driving about 114,000 miles across Virginia last year, even though most of its 28-member staff is based in Herndon.
“We don’t need the footprint we have right now,” Albrigo said.
Gather gives CIT additional options. In addition to three coworking spaces in the Richmond area — and a fourth coming in Midlothian next fall — the company operates facilities in Norfolk, Newport News and, beginning in June, Virginia Beach. CIT, as a tenant at the Arts District location, will be able to use other Gather facilities for meetings, offices and support services, such as printing.
“We’ve got space right now, so we’d be happy to grow with them,” said Lindsey Wrable, a community manager at the Arts District location, which has about 21,000 square feet in four former Broad Street storefronts.
Gather also offers what Wrable called a “built-in ecosystem” of startup companies and creative professionals working in the same building as CIT, which leases four offices that could house 12 people, with an adaptable common area the center uses as a conference room.
“It sets a tone if you’re about innovation and entrepreneurship,” Albrigo said. “These are the types of places where it’s occurring.”
CIT has a statewide mission to boost technology entrepreneurs across Virginia, said Bob Stolle, former state secretary of commerce and trade, who is the center’s senior vice president for public policy and regional initiatives. “You’ve got to support these ecosystems in all of Virginia.”
Carrie Roth runs one of them at Activation Capital, so she’s happy to have CIT in Richmond.
“It’s a great place for our capital to showcase what’s going on and also for leveraging the assets across the commonwealth,” she said.
As for CIT’s new look, Roth said, “We all need less space to do big things.”
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A developer is looking to make waves in Chesterfield County, enough of them to create what they say will be “a global surf destination” at state Route 288 and Genito Road.
The 105-acre site, which is next to the River City Sportsplex in the Brandermill area, will feature a 13-acre man-made lake where water skiers towed by overhead cables would glide along the surface.
Near the lake, a surf pool is planned that would generate waves for beginners as well as “world-class elite surfers,” according to American Wave Machines Inc., the company creating the surf pool.
Developer Flatwater Companies has launched a website that says the project will feature a 170-room hotel, an amphitheater, restaurants, more than 700 residential units, 100,000 square feet of offices, 150,000 square feet of retail and entertainment venues and “unlimited good times.”
Company officials reached this month were tight-lipped about the proposal other than referring to the website and saying that a groundbreaking is expected in the coming months. The project has been in the works for years, having received zoning approvals from the Board of Supervisors back in 2017.
Brett Burkhart, the Flatwater co-founder, declined to comment and referred questions to Andrew Ryan, a spokesman for the development, which is dubbed “The Lake.” Ryan said more details would be available closer to the project’s groundbreaking.
The fate of the property — which is on Genito Road in an area near Southside Speedway and Steam Bell Beer Works — has been in limbo as the project underwent a county site plan and state reviews.
County staff this month approved the first phase of the project, allowing the developer to start carving out the man-made lake and developing other elements of the plan, including an open-air amphitheater, a rock climbing wall, and sidewalks and trails around the water.
Subsequent county staff approvals are still needed for other parts of the plan, including the surf pool and housing units, said Jeffrey Lamson, a senior Chesterfield planner.
Scott Smedley, the county’s director of environmental engineering, said a key sticking point with the project over the years has been ensuring adequate water quality in the man-made lake.
“This lake didn’t really fit into any specific regulatory framework, and that’s a problem all around the country with these facilities,” Smedley said. “You basically have a body of water created without any real treatment standards governing how the water is being treated and filtered for people to be constantly exposed to.”
Smedley said the plan had to go through five separate site plan reviews. County officials had been seeking ways to ensure that pollutants from stormwater runoff would be adequately filtered from the water. The design of the main lake includes using a wetland as well as an aeration system to keep its waters clean, Smedley said.
“There was back-and-forth on the design of the facility, of the lake and the associated treatment of the water for the lake and how that was being handled,” Smedley said. “They’ve got their approval. They’re good to go.”
The project received its zoning approvals in 2017 for a mixed-use community with apartments, town homes, shops and entertainment venues. Back then, the project was a partnership between Burkhart and Derek Cha, the co-founder of the Sweet Frog frozen yogurt chain.
Burkhart said Cha is no longer involved in the venture. Ryan could not say why Cha is no longer taking part in the development. Cha could not immediately be reached for comment.
The plans, which back in 2017 included a whitewater rafting facility on the spot that’s now slated for the 6-acre surf park, were expected to cost about $250 million. Burkhart told CoStar News in an article this month that Flatwater expects to spend $300 million toward its share of construction costs for the development.
An online brochure said the plan is expected to draw “millions” to the site each year where more than 200 events are supposed to be held, including outdoor yoga sessions and international surf events. It would have the first surf park on the East Coast, the brochure says.
Supervisor Chris Winslow, who represents the Clover Hill District where the project is planned, said county and state transportation officials are looking at creating an exit from Route 288 south onto Genito Road to allow travelers a quicker path to the development that would bypass local roads.
Winslow said he thinks the project will give an economic boost to the surrounding area.
“I think people in Chesterfield who are looking for things to do on the weekend will find this attractive,” he said.
In January 1940, central Virginia was paralyzed by more snow than anyone could recall seeing up to that point.
Eight decades later, that’s still the case.
Richmond’s 21.6-inch snow total of Jan. 23-24, 1940 — and the week of brutal, subzero cold that followed it — set local records that haven’t been rivaled.
“The snow assumed the character of a blizzard,” according to local Weather Bureau meteorologists, who on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 23 successfully predicted that it would be the heaviest snowstorm so far that season.
It delivered on that billing, and then some. It was more snow than any other storm had left behind in their records, outranking 1922’s 19.1-inch “Knickerbocker Storm.” Moreover, winds up to 38 mph sculpted 1940’s snow into 6-foot-high drifts.
Central Virginia saw the thickest snowfall of any place along the track of that storm, which arced from eastern Texas to Atlantic City, N.J. It first deposited unusually deep snow, sleet and ice from Louisiana to Georgia on Jan. 23 as low pressure burgeoned in the Gulf of Mexico and cold air plunged toward the Deep South. Snow then clobbered the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic throughout the following morning, but the low retreated offshore in such a way as to spare the big cities of the Northeast.
As a result, Richmond saw more snow that month than any other city along the Eastern Seaboard.
To say that schools, businesses and roads were shut down is an understatement.
Daily routines effectively ceased for a week after the snow fell. Lingering disruption could still be seen two weeks later.
By that Tuesday night, downtown hotels teemed with snowbound office workers and travelers unable to continue home. On Wednesday, Jan. 24, Richmonders awoke to roads that were extremely difficult to navigate by car or foot, and to streetcars that were frozen in place. Switchboards at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company were flooded with a record volume of calls.
So many people were kept inside over the following days that reports of crime, auto accidents and communicable diseases actually dwindled to unusual lows, according to articles in the Richmond News Leader.
Trash collection didn’t resume for a week and a half after the mammoth snowfall. The dead went unburied.
The cost of fresh produce, coal and firewood crept higher as supplies tightened. Calls to the Richmond Fire Department spiked, too.
Statewide, there was more loss of life from heating fires than exposure to the cold. According to a report for the Weather Bureau, the storm claimed 12 lives in Virginia, but that count did not include any traffic-related deaths. The combined expense of snow removal and road damage in Virginia was estimated at $500,000, or more than $9 million in today’s costs.
The James River was frozen solid down to Newport News until early February, choking off shipping traffic. Byrd Field — now Richmond International Airport — was also closed for business. Aviators from New Jersey landed on a plowed road near the airfield, according to a Jan. 29 photo caption in the News Leader, unaware that conditions would be so bad on their way to North Carolina. Trains from Richmond to Florida were filled to capacity, however, as southbound tourism surged 40% above the typical January levels.
Richmond’s schools reopened on Jan. 31, but some rural school districts remained closed until Feb. 7. The General Assembly remained in session, though attendance was “somewhat depressed.”
Weather records showed that the snow cover didn’t melt off fully until Feb. 9, 17 days after it first accumulated.
News items and editorials praised the efforts of Boy Scouts who volunteered to direct traffic and keep wildfowl fed, along with the tireless firefighters and highway crews.
Criticism was aimed at the city’s decision to rent costly road equipment from contractors rather than hire unemployed laborers to clear sidewalks, and at drivers who abandoned their vehicles far away from curbs and reduced the West End to a cluttered maze of one-way thoroughfares.
The episode also revived interest in a January 1857 storm called “Cox’s snow,” which predated the era of official weather measurements but reportedly involved drifts up to the second stories of buildings. But measured against everything else that’s come our way in the modern age, 1940’s storm still reigns supreme.
In response to last week’s call for memories, several readers wrote or phoned in. Here are some of their stories, in their words, edited for clarity and length.
Phyllis Trammell Hancock, Bon Air
In 1940: age 8, Richmond’s Oak Grove neighborhood
Sometimes when it would snow, I would tell people about it. I would say, “Gosh this is nothing, you should have been around in 1940!”
The drifts were unreal. My brother was born in 1936, so he could not go out to play in the snow, but he sat at the window. I went out to play in the snow, and I would throw snowballs at the window to make him laugh.
Dad worked at DuPont so he started out like he was going to work.
With the streetcars not running, Phyllis’ father was forced to travel by other means.
So he caught a snowplow. And of course he stayed [at work]. He could not come home, because basically Richmond was paralyzed.
Tom Wyatt, Midlothian
In 1940: age 10, Richmond’s Oak Grove neighborhood
School did not let pupils go early, as the snow had just begun a little after noon, but by the time 3 p.m. arrived, there was considerable snow on the ground.
Mother would not let my brother and I out until the snow started dissipating and it warmed up.
Nothing moved from Wednesday, Jan. 24 through Sunday the 29th. I do recall, however, that our newspapers, The Times-Dispatch and the News Leader, were delivered during that period. How, I will never know.
The paper boy was so faithful. I looked out the window one afternoon and he was pulling his sled along. But we did run out of milk and bread because both of those were delivered to our door back then. We had to have had a recent coal delivery because we stayed warm.
Betsy Featherstone, Richmond
In 1940: newborn in Richmond
I was born in the middle of January 1940 at St. Luke’s Hospital. My parents resided in Fredericksburg, but my mother came to Richmond for my birth.
When it was time to take me home, no cars were running because of the snow. My father couldn’t get to Richmond because of the snow and had to take the train. After my mother’s discharge, my parents were able to get to the train station, and with me in a basket, returned to Fredericksburg on the train.
I refer to this time as ‘my blizzard’ and have loved snow ever since.
Janice Worsham, Powhatan
In 1940: newborn in Richmond
I was born Jan. 18, 1940, at MCV, and we lived on Church Hill near Chimborazo Park. We had no vehicle, so my dad had to walk from there to MCV in the snow to see his new baby girl.
I love snow as long as I can be inside. I have always loved to see snow.
Preston Bailey, Richmond
Whenever there was a big snowfall, my father, Garland Bailey, would always refer back to the blizzard of January 1940 and said there would never be another snowstorm like it. He would usually also tell this story:
At the time of the snowstorm, my father was working at a general store on Route 5 near Charles City Courthouse. He lived in the small apartment at the back of the store that was accessible only through a door to the outside.
On the morning after it had snowed the previous night, when he opened the door to go to work in the store, he was met by a solid wall of white and was unable to get out of the door. Luckily, there was a window to the outside on another side of the room. He opened the window, and he said the snow was only as high as the window ledge. He climbed out of the room, closed the window, and floundered through the snow to the front of the store. Unlocking the door, he then built a fire in the wood stove and put a pot of coffee on the stove.
Soon thereafter, he heard loud scraping sounds and saw that it was the Highway Department’s large trucks with snowplows on their fronts. One of the drivers asked him if the store was open, and Dad said it was. They came in and he gave them each a cup of hot coffee. In thanks for the coffee, the men plowed the store lot with their snowplows before they left.
Madison McClintic, Henrico County
In 1940: age 11, Farmville
It was so unusual that you tell people about it and they can’t believe it, they don’t believe it. It did occur and that’s for sure. It’s my understanding that Farmville was the epicenter of it.
We lived across the high school, which did not go back to work for two weeks. Cars sitting out in the open were just kind of mounds.
It was kind of deep for sleigh riding — too deep. It was closer to 3 feet deep, and drifting is what took it all over the place.
It was the experience of a lifetime and never have seen anything like it since.
Roberta Shelton, Boydton
In 1940: age 10, Keysville
I remember walking down the sidewalk and thinking to myself, just a couple more inches and we would be tunneling out of this snow.
My mother was living in Richmond with her second husband, and she went into labor on Jan. 28 and my stepfather had to dig the car out of the snowbank.
June Whitehurst Hancock, Richmond
In 1940: age 6, Richmond’s Broad Rock neighborhood
I had just had surgery and was not able to go to school, and I wanted to go out into the snow so badly. Santa had brought us a sleigh!
Violet Neal, South Boston
In 1940: age 3, South Boston
I just remember the snow because I had a brother, 9 years older than I, and he and his friends were out playing in the snow. Of course, I wasn’t allowed out because it was over my head. So, finally, my mother made the boys make me a path all around the backyard so I could be out there. And I remember walking in that path and it was over my head, and all I could see was the white snow on both sides.
My parents did not let me stay out there very long. But my recollection is my brother and his friends just stayed out and played and played.