Virginia Is at a Drug Policy Crossroads

    Virginia harm reduction advocates should organize and refocus their efforts in the legislature, if they want to prevent the state’s laws from getting even crueler toward people who use drugs.

    Mike Doucette, the Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), recently said that one of the organization’s top legislative priorities is to reinstate felony murder convictions for people who sell drugs that lead to fatal overdoses. The Virginia Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that these convictions were impermissible in most circumstances.

    Doucette claims that the move has been requested by VACA’s membership, which consists of the elected local prosecutorscalled Commonwealth’s Attorneys—throughout the state. In a December 2018 interview, Doucette characterized VACA as a united, bipartisan front, stating, “when we go to Richmond, we identify with criminal justice: the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Party, as we call it.”

    There are many who disagree with the idea that a person (often a friend or family member) who provides drugs that are involved in another person’s fatal overdose should be charged with murder. Louise Vincent, who lost her daughter to overdose, wrote recently for Filter about how drug-induced homicide convictions “result in two lives lost instead of one—and a false appearance of retribution, justice and revenge.” “Drug-induced homicide” laws have also been found to have a deterrent effect on people calling for emergency help when someone overdoses. 

    Regardless, prosecutor associations like VACA are widely known for opposing drug policy reforms that would lead to fewer people getting locked up. In recent years, a new wave of reform-minded elected prosecutors has disrupted the homogeneity of these groups. Even so, formally leaving is still almost unheard of. That’s why Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has embraced harm reduction tools like safer consumption spaces (SCS), made news when he left his state’s association in 2018. 

    A strong push against Doucette’s agenda this year would dovetail with other changes that are happening in Virginia. Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales was re-elected on a criminal justice reform platform in 2017. Then, in 2018, Scott Miles pulled off a surprise upset in conservative Chesterfield County while running largely on a campaign for more humane drug policy.

    In 2019, Morales and Miles may be joined by more kindred spirits. In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest by population, Steve Descano seeks to defeat incumbent Ray Morrogh in the Democratic primary. Some criticized President Barack Obama for not doing more to end the War on Drugs, and Morrogh is squarely to Obama’s right on the issue. When Obama Attorney General Eric Holder expressed support for modest drug sentencing reform, Morrogh called it a cheap trick to “balance the budget. Descano’s platform is focusing on cash bail reform, racial disparities, and improving the procedural fairness of trials.

    In Arlington, Virginia, Parisa Tafti, the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, is vying for Theo Stamos’s seat. Stamos opposed former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to restore voting rights to over 200,000 people with felony convictions. Tafti has also accused Stamos of denying “that mass incarceration even exists.”

    Buta Biberaj, another candidate displaying progressive credentials, is running against Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman, who has struggled to maintain a functioning drug court.

    While none of these three candidates have directly opined on the drug-induced homicide issue, a new breed of Commonwealth’s Attorneys in line with harm reduction philosophy could make the difference in that debate and others.

    Photo of Mike Doucette via NewsAdvance

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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