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Chesterfield man charged with growing 50-plus pot plants will pay a fine, serve 10 days in jail; case illustrates inconsistencies, confusion in new cannabis law

A Chesterfield County man charged with felony possession of more than 50 marijuana plants will serve 10 days in jail and pay a fine after pleading guilty to two misdemeanors — a case his attorney says illustrates the inconsistencies in Virginia’s new cannabis law and the confusion it can create for recreational pot users trying to navigate the rules.

Charles A. Miller Jr., 57, was arrested on Aug. 10 on felony charges after police were called to his home and found 43 marijuana plants in his home and nine more in his truck, far more than the four plants allowed under the state’s new pot law, which went into effect on July 1. Police also found roughly 1½ pounds of bagged, harvested marijuana.

Last week, in a plea deal negotiated between the prosecutor and his attorney, Miller pleaded guilty in Chesterfield General District Court to reduced, misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to 12 months in jail with 11 months and 20 days suspended and fined $1,000.

Chesterfield prosecutor Jeff Einhaus and defense attorney Julian Viscidi agreed that misdemeanor convictions were appropriate in this case.

“The offenses were nonviolent, appeared to be isolated incidents and the defendant lacked any significant criminal record,” Einhaus said. “Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the [prosecution] sought an active jail sentence and a hefty fine to hold Mr. Miller accountable for his choices.”

Although the case has been settled with Miller avoiding felony convictions, Viscidi said he would expect to see similar cases arise across Virginia, “where there is a great deal of confusion over separating personal use in the privacy of one’s home, versus the amount of marijuana the law proscribes as ‘intent to distribute’ and rises to a felony level.”

Viscidi, who studied the intricacies of the new law to prepare for the case, said part of the confusion stems from how much marijuana a person can produce in conjunction with the legally allowed number of plants they are allowed to grow. And the matter is further complicated by the free seeds that some supply shops have given away to people who want to grow and harvest their own pot.

“It just doesn’t add up,” said the attorney, who is a former Chesterfield prosecutor. “It’s as if they are setting people up to be felons.”

Miller’s defense “was that there is substantial confusion as to the new laws on marijuana,” Viscidi added.

A single marijuana plant can produce 17.5 ounces of marijuana bud, and Virginians now are allowed to possess up to four plants. That means that individuals are allowed to possess more than 4 pounds of marijuana bud alone, not including the weight of the plant itself, Viscidi said.

“Yet if someone was found with 4 pounds of marijuana, they would almost certainly be charged with a felony,” said Viscidi, who noted the weight of marijuana that Miller possessed was much less than that.

The new law allows Virginians 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Anyone found possessing more than an ounce but less than a pound can be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $25. Anyone convicted of possessing more than a pound can be charged with a felony.

Buying and selling marijuana will remain illegal in Virginia until Jan. 1, 2024, when retail sales are expected to begin. Adults can privately share up to 1 ounce of marijuana, as long as it’s given away and not sold.

Although the new law restricts to four the number of marijuana plants a household can possess, Miller was provided 50 to 100 marijuana seeds for free by a hemp retail store when the law went into effect this summer, Viscidi said.

“These aspects create a great deal of confusion for citizens over what exactly they can and cannot do and creates inconsistencies in the law itself over how it is realistically applied,” Viscidi said. “While a small number of plants recovered from Mr. Miller were large enough to be considered mature, the vast majority were tiny plants that had not even produced any actual marijuana. They were small sprouts from the many seeds he was legally provided.”

Miller initially was charged with felony possession with the intent to sell, give or distribute more than 5 pounds of marijuana and possessing between 50 and 100 marijuana plants. The plea deal reduced those charges to possession of between 11 and 49 plants, and possession with the intent to distribute less than 1 ounce of marijuana.

During the first seven weeks of the new law, only 25 marijuana-related arrests were made in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico — a 90% drop from the 257 arrests made during the same seven-week period in 2020, according to law enforcement officials in those localities.

Miller was one of 20 people arrested or issued summonses in Chesterfield for marijuana offenses during the first seven weeks of the new law. In Miller’s case, a person who jointly owns the house with him called police, telling authorities that Miller was in possession of more than four marijuana plants. Both owners gave police consent to search the residence.

Miller now has a “far better understanding of the new laws and we are confident he will abide by them,” Viscidi said.


Entertainment
breaking
Owner of Chop Suey Books selling the shop, along with WonTon the cat

Chop Suey Books, the Carytown bookstore that has been written about by The New York Times and ranked the best bookstore in the state, is being sold by owner Ward Tefft. Tefft has owned the store for nearly 20 years.

“The new owners, Berkley and Chris McDaniel, are longtime customers who have been in the Richmond area since the ’80s, and we are all really excited about the new chapter for the store,” Tefft said.

The sale is expected to be completed by the end of this week. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

The sale includes all the intellectual property and assets affiliated with Chop Suey Books, including its Instagram account and the beloved bookstore cat WonTon.

WonTon, a resident of Chop Suey Books since 2008, can be spotted around the book shop and in the bright murals that adorn its walls.

“Ward and his employees have created such a lovely space and community, we want to keep it like that and grow it,” Berkley McDaniel said. “We want to make as few changes as possible and keep the same vibe and the same kind of books.”

The only big change they’re planning is implementing a new inventory system, which the store doesn’t currently have.

***

The original Chop Suey Books opened in 2002 on West Cary Street near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, in a building that used to house George’s Chop Suey restaurant, which inspired the name.

Originally from Maryland, Tefft attended VCU for English before moving to New York, where he attended graduate school and then worked in bookstores in Manhattan.

In 2001, he moved back to Richmond with a truck of 3,000 to 4,000 books he’d collected and the idea of opening his own bookshop. Chop Suey Books started as a shop selling new and used books near VCU and quickly became known as a literary hub for Richmond with a series of readings and literary events.

In 2006, Tefft opened a second Chop Suey Books in Carytown at 2913 W. Cary St. across from the Byrd Theatre. He maintained both before closing the first to focus on the Carytown location.

Over the years, Chop Suey Books maintained its reputation as a quirky and cool independent bookstore with a wide variety of books and a highly curated youth section. Chop Suey was a popular stop for authors on their book tours pre-pandemic and even made an appearance in a novel by New Yorker writer Gary Shteyngart.

“In his book ‘Lake Success,’ there was a scene of people making out in the upstairs space. That’s a true story. We’d come across that all the time,” Tefft said.

Chop Suey was named the best bookstore in Virginia in 2019 by MentalFloss and profiled in the New York Times that same year as “A Southern Bookstore Serving Up a Little Bit of Everything.”

But the pandemic has been challenging, Tefft said. The shop closed in March 2020 and didn’t reopen until October. When it reopened, it was appointment-only for safety reasons.

“With COVID, I had to work more, and it was like paying to go to work. I’m burned out. I got halfway through the pandemic and said, ‘I think I’m ready.’ I have a 4-year-old. I want to spend time with him,” Tefft said.

Tefft quietly began looking for new owners. After Christmas, he worried about the high transmission rate and closed the shop again until April. In July, the floors had to be redone, and the shop closed again.

“We just reopened about two weeks ago. We’re running on limited hours. But it’s awesome to be back, to see regulars and say goodbye and slowly let people know,” Tefft said.

McDaniel, the new owner, said that he’s always wanted to own a bookstore. He grew up in Richmond and graduated from Highland Springs High School. Although he spent the past 20 years in wireless technology, McDaniel retired a few years ago and has spent his time working and volunteering at the Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip.

Now 51, he was ready for a new chapter along with his wife, Chris, who studied English literature at the University of Virginia and currently works in information technology.

Gift certificates and store credit will still be valid under the new owners. The Brew Ho Ho, an annual event featuring local authors who have published books over the past year, is planned at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Dec. 5.

As for the future, Tefft said he has a “few books in the hopper” with his imprint, Chop Suey Books Books, although he said he will have to change the name. In the past, he has published “Murals of Richmond” and “River City Secrets: Stories From Richmond” under the imprint.

“I spent half my life in books. It’s a strange thing to walk away from. It’s almost like being an empty-nester,” Tefft said. But he’s looking forward to handing over the keys to McDaniel later this week.

“It was really important to me that Chop Suey stayed in Richmond. I didn’t want it to close,” Tefft added.


Z-no-digital
New southbound I-95 crossing lanes in Fredericksburg area set to open this week

A stretch of southbound Interstate 95 in the Fredericksburg area is set to double in size this week as crews wrap up three years’ work on the first phase of Rappahannock River crossing projects.

Three new lanes and a new bridge over the Rappahannock River are scheduled to open to traffic on Wednesday at 2 p.m., said Virginia Department of Transportation spokesperson Darragh Frye in a news release. A new overpass at U.S. 17 in Stafford County will open Wednesday as well.

The I-95 opening will create a drastic change to the traffic pattern, dividing southbound traffic in Stafford, with three lanes for through-traffic and three for local traffic.

The southbound traffic will be divided just south of Centreport Parkway in Stafford. At that point, interstate traffic heading through the Fredericksburg area will stay in the left three lanes. Traffic heading to the U.S. 17 interchange; the rest area and Virginia Welcome Center; or the state Route 3 interchange in Fredericksburg will stay in right lane.

The separated interstate lanes will merge south of Route 3 in Spotsylvania County.

Lane closures between Centreport Parkway and Route 3 were scheduled to be in place from 7 p.m. Tuesday through 2 p.m. Wednesday. During that time, crews will be milling and paving the roadway and uncovering overhead signs that will guide traffic through the new pattern.

When the new zone opens, work will continue on some of the new lanes and exit ramps.

The exit to U.S. 17 will remain a single lane, with the loop ramps remaining closed until the end of the year. Temporary traffic signals on U.S. 17 will manage exiting traffic. When the work is complete, the exit lanes to U.S. 17 will be expanded to two lanes and the ramp to southbound I-95 will be widened to two lanes.

Local I-95 traffic not exiting at U.S. 17 will continue south; the lanes will expand to three prior to reaching the bridge over the Rappahannock River. That traffic will be able to exit at the rest area, onto Route 3, or continue to the merge with the mainline lanes.

That new stretch of I-95 for local traffic will not be fully opened immediately. For an estimated three or four weeks, crews will continue work at the Route 3 interchange, which will keep some of the local I-95 lanes closed beyond Cowan Boulevard.

When that work is complete, all three local I-95 lanes will be open, running south to the merge with the mainline interstate lanes.

The $132 million crossing project started on the southbound side of I-95 in August 2018. If the project is fully completed by December, it will be five months ahead of schedule, VDOT said.

Work on the northbound crossing project started in summer 2020. The three new lanes on that side of I-95 are set to open in early 2024.


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Phil Mickelson coming back to Dominion tournament

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Education
breaking
Hanover parents weigh in on proposed policies for transgender and nonbinary students

It was standing room only inside Hanover County’s School Board meeting room Tuesday night, as parents, educators and others were present to weigh in on proposed policies for transgender students.

The board was scheduled to hear a first read of the policies, which it was required to have in place before the first day of school last month, but concerns by board members delayed the required adoption.

Virginia’s General Assembly’s passed legislation in 2020 requiring the Virginia Department of Education to create model guidelines for the treatment of transgender and nonbinary students. The VDOE’s guidelines note that students should be allowed to use gender pronouns and names that reflect their preferred gender identity and to dress and use school bathrooms and locker rooms in ways that conform to their preferred gender identity.

Another component suggests that schools could withhold information from parents and guardians about students’ preferred identities if a student requests privacy. All Virginia school divisions were instructed to “adopt policies that are consistent with but may be more comprehensive than the model policies developed by [VDOE].”

Hanover’s proposed policy language was added to two existing sections of School Board policies — equal educational opportunities and student records.

The new language in the former says that students who express a gender identity that differs from their official education records may seek help from their school counselor. Once the school has been notified — and with consent of parents or legal guardians — students can use “single-user restroom facilities, which are open to all students, or the restroom or locker room assigned to the student’s expressed gender identity.”

That proposed policy also says that with the exception of middle or high school sports, which fall under the oversight of Virginia High School League, the Hanover school system will not segregate students by gender when there’s no “legitimate educational purpose,” and that in cases of gender-specific courses or sections within a course, “transgender students are allowed to enroll in the course corresponding with their gender identity.”

Within the records policy, proposed changes explain that the county is required to maintain information such as students’ legal names and sex recorded at birth and report it for purposes such as standardized testing. But absent a reason like the standardized reporting procedures, the proposed policy says “school staff should avoid the inadvertent disclosure of such information” about transgender students’ preferred identities.

The proposal also says that at the request of students or their parents or guardians, “school staff will use the name and gender consistent with the student’s gender identity on other school records or documents.”

The board will vote on all of the proposed policies at its November meeting.

***

Earlier Tuesday evening, before board members could discuss the changes, attendees spoke during the public comment segment of the meeting, mostly in opposition to the state law — particularly the aspects that allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their preferred gender.

Hanover parent Sabrina Civils was one of about 10 people who said she’s opposed to the proposed policies. She said she’s scared for her daughter if those policies were to be put in place, because the policies “will be taken advantage of” and lead to sexual assaults and other violence — to boys and girls — in bathrooms and locker rooms.

“Sexual assaults happen to both” genders, Civils said, and “I am scared for my daughter [and] I do not want to hear that I’m overreacting.”

Another parent, Jennifer Rath, echoed those thoughts, saying that children who are exposed to other genders in locker rooms and bathrooms can be “traumatized.” She asked board members what they were going to do to make sure every child is safe, adding that the impact of the policies, if adopted, “does not scream safe to me.”

Several attendees, however, spoke in favor of the board adopting the policies, including two speakers who read letters on behalf of parents of transgender children.

Kelly Merrill, the mother of a transgender child, encouraged the board to stop “resisting” and adopt the policies. She said the School Board has heard from families and parents like her — not just the opposition.

She noted that board members are not experts on transgender issues, and encouraged them to educate themselves using resources other than well-known conservative organizations like the Family Foundation of Virginia, of which a representative was present at the meeting and spoke out against the policies.

Merrill said asking a group such as that for help was like relying on an “arsonist to put out a fire.”

Transgender children come from all walks of life, “even good conservative families,” Merrill said, and those students are in need of the board’s advocacy. “Our kids’ lives depend on it.”

In one instance, audience members who opposed the policies — and were jeering at speakers who spoke in support — were admonished by board member Sterling H. Daniel to be respectful of every one who spoke, whether they agreed with the speakers or not.

The School Board’s policy of a one-hour public comment limit meant that 10 people who signed up to speak did not do so. Some members of the audience objected loudly, calling for the board to extend the public comment time.

The board’s attorney, Lisa Seward, clarified for board members during their brief discussion period that while the state law doesn’t include enforcement mechanisms — and has said school divisions’ funding will not be cut as a punitive measure — not adopting such policies can likely lead to civil lawsuits against the school division, like has happened elsewhere around the state.


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