Virginia Judge Given Jail Time for Littering and...Smokin’ the Reefer

Will James Allamong’s sentencing lead the charge for marijuana legalization in the conservative South?

marijuana legalization efforts in virginia get a visibility boost with arrest of substitute judge.

No one is suggesting that cannabis should become Virginia’s state flower, but maybe growing the weed should not be cause for incarceration? (Photo: Jorge Duenes/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Last week, a resident of the rural town of Woodstock, Virginia, was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a $500 fine for a first-time marijuana offense. The offender, James Allamong, accepted a deal with prosecutors after they leveraged the threat of charging him with felony intent to distribute.

Police, called to respond to a fire at a nearby property, nabbed Allamong with 41 marijuana plants growing on his land.

On the surface, it was just another day in the war on drugs.

MORE: Infographic: Wack Weed Attitudes

James Allamong isn’t your typical pothead. He’s a substitute judge in Virginia’s Shenandoah County—home of archconservatives like Todd Gilbert, a state assemblyman who tried to force a bill through the Virginia House of Reps that would have required women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion.

San Francisco it is not.

Allamong’s story exploded online after his sentencing—a weed-growing judge has an obvious sensational appeal—and drew its fair share of chuckles. Some were outraged that Allamong seemed to have gotten off with a slap on the wrist.

According to Ed McCann, however, Director of the Virginia Chapter of NORML, a nationwide pro-marijuana legalization organization, Allamong got the strictest sentence allowed by Virginia law.

“The maximum first-time possession sentence, for any amount, is up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine,” McCann tells TakePart.

Of course Allamong could have gotten worse—he was originally charged with felony manufacturing marijuana with an intent to distribute, which would have netted him a minimum five-year sentence.

“I live in Lynchberg, home to Liberty University and Jerry Falwell’s church,” says McCann. “But even people here have been surprisingly receptive to our petition.”

Virginia is a conservative state, but, according to McCann, views on marijuana laws are starting to soften. Unlike Colorado and Washington, which both qualified voter ballot initiatives to legalize and regulate weed in this year’s election, Virginia has no such option. If weed is to be decriminalized and regulated, it will have to come from the legislature—no easy task.

Several years ago, McCann says, a decriminalization bill was put before the court of justice subcommittee in the state house of representatives. “It would have eliminated jail time for first-time possession and replaced it with a civil fine of $500,” he explains. “But the committee is stacked with former cops. They looked at us like: ‘Oh, those potheads again. Next.’ ”

The bill was shot down, in part because Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey Bryant has recently made a habit of insisting that first-time possession offenders are not sent to jail. Allamong is now a very public example contradicting Bryant’s assertions.

Prior to Allamong’s arrest, attitudes toward marijuana law appeared to be liberalizing in Virginia. A measure to study regulating marijuana and selling it through state liquor stores was approved by the house studies committee.

“We went through a different committee and we were taken more seriously,” says McCann. “The notion they would even study this measure was so radical it got a lot of attention.”

In the ensuing months, NORML used the growing legalization momentum to gather signatures for a petition to legislators to repeal cannabis prohibition.

“I live in Lynchberg, home to Liberty University and Jerry Falwell’s church,” says McCann. “But even people here have been surprisingly receptive to our petition.”

It remains to be seen what effect Allamong’s sentence will have on decriminalization efforts. Will his story draw more Virginians to the cause? Or will lawmakers and law enforcement crack down even harder to set an example?

The fallout from Allamong’s arrest will be closely followed, because if liberalized marijuana laws can gain headway in Virginia, they can make it anywhere.

Is marijuana legalization in the United States more than just a pipe dream? Leave your thoughts in COMMENTS.

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