HARRISONBURG — While candidates shared their opinions on a variety of issues Friday at Eastern Mennonite University, the decriminalization of marijuana was a commonly shared thought with six in support of it.
“I am willing to work at it and look at the issue moving forward,” said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, 26th House District incumbent, adding that he would consider decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana, but still had concerns regarding the effects of marijuana use.
His opponent, Democrat Brent Finnegan, was also in favor, saying he would support the legalization of marijuana with regulated adult use.
Other candidates participating in the Community Criminal Justice Days candidate forum were quick to show their support in decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.
“I don’t want to live in a decriminalized state, I want to live in a legalized state,” said Elliot Harding, independent candidate for the 25th Senate District.
Annette Hyde, Democratic candidate for the 24th Senate District, asked why should people have a criminal record for using a plant.
When asked if candidates would support the automatic expungement of non-violent marijuana possession convictions, 26th Senate District candidate April Moore, Finnegan, Harding and Hyde answered “yes,” while Wilt said he would consider it at a certain level.
The Community Criminal Justice Days candidate forum allowed candidates to discuss criminal justice reform and how it can impact local communities.
Beverly Harrison, Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates 15th District and Jennifer Kitchen, Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates 25th District, were scheduled to attend but were not present.
The forum opened with candidates being asked what their positions on justice reinvestment were and what actions they would take as a legislator to address the criminal justice system.
Wilt and Harding both said they had not heard of the term “justice reinvestment” prior to attending Friday’s forum.
“There is no question that many aspects of the criminal justice system is antiquated for a variety of reasons,” Wilt said. “I am supportive of looking at various methods that can help the overall issues.”
Finnegan, said justice reinvestment needs to be addressed in the state code.
“I think what we really need to do is look at some of the absurdities in the state code,” Finnegan said. “In the state code, local governments receive 25% of the cost of building a new jail rather than having to build a new school. What that does is incentivizes building jails and not schools.”
Harding said the next steps to reinvesting in the community start with shifting resources out of incarceration and into other phases.
“We have to reinvest and recalibrate how we look at it,” Harding said.
Hyde said it wasn’t just a budget issue, but an ethical and moral issue.
When it came to working on improving conditions and how candidates would work in the General Assembly to ensure efforts that impact the community, Wilt said a strong economy is key.
“As far as factors go … we need to have a strong economy and to have job opportunities for individuals to go to,” Wilt said.
He added there also needs to be a lesser focus on four-year universities when it comes to quality education, saying “there is something for everybody,” including training and certificates.
Moore said the growing inequality is a “serious problem,” saying Medicaid funding could help treat the opioid crisis.
Finnegan was asked, if elected, would he aggressively advocate to restore mental-health treatment funding.
“Yes, I would advocate to restore mental-health treatment,” he said. “We need a sensible tax policy that helps people in these situations.”
He added that people seem to think marijuana is a gateway drug.
“The real gateway drug is abuse and trauma and we need to make sure we have treatment for everyone,” Finnegan said.
Harding said he would do his best to get the resources that are necessary for quality health in Virginia.
“We need to increase the funds for [health providers in schools],” Harding said.
Hyde said she knows first-hand the struggles facing those with mental illness, saying the state severely lacks resources for those suffering from mental illness.
She added that the public should have the option to buy in to Medicaid.
Wilt disagreed with a statement, saying the General Assembly has cut mental health and substance-abuse treatment services, saying the General Assembly increased its funding for those services by 30%, excluding funding from Medicaid.
“I am not saying we are where we need to be, but the point is that we are moving,” Wilt said. “There needs to be a little credit given that we are moving forward.”