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ALEXANDRIA, VA – JUNE 15: Two Virginia state troopers stand guard near the the site where a gunman opened fire at the Eugene Simpson Stadium Park June 15, 2017 in Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is in critical condition after being shot in the attack during a Republican congressional baseball team practice yesterday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
A true story about what it’s like to get busted with weed in Virginia.
Virginia sure is a beautiful state, but not for weed—at least not yet. For now, getting caught with a gram of bud costs you. And court fees aren’t even the half of it. You see, there’s this little program in the state called VASAP, which stands for Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program.
Susan Marshon, executive director of Christiansburg’s New River Valley VASAP—1 of 24 VASAP locations—refers to the program as “Virginia’s best-kept secret,” which is accurate. A quick Google search will provide general info on VASAP, but none of what’s available will prepare you for the real thing. That’s why I’m here.
Scarborough police officer Sgt. Tom Chard conducts a sobriety test on Cuong Nguyen of Portland after pulling him over on Route 1. (Photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
For those who have never heard of it, VASAP is a 20-hour course that focuses on “substance abuse and driving, substance abuse and health, and self-evaluation of potential for substance abuse.” A DUI isn’t the only conviction that lands you in VASAP—possession of marijuana can too. VASAP serves a probationary function as well. In other words, there are random drug tests and alcohol breath tests throughout the course. If you slip up in any way during the duration of VASAP—whether it be by flunking a drug test or catching yet another charge—then they drop you from the program, and your case is returned to court.
I should mention that there is a plus side to attending VASAP, or so the courts will tell you anyway. If you’re a first time offender, then completing the program will result in the charge being dropped. Sounds like a great deal at first, but the truth is, a conviction is a conviction. Regardless of whether it’s a felony or misdemeanor, Virginia doesn’t care. And it will still come up on background checks—such as those conducted by prospective employers.
Something you might also not know about VASAP is that it’s been entirely user-funded since 1972. Neither the state nor the federal government contributes money to the program. It’s the 7000 offenders who are forced to take the class each year—forking up over $300 for the program itself on top of $50 for drug tests—that keeps it funded. I’m one of those 7000 offenders.
Unfortunately, I’ve now sat through VASAP every Tuesday for a total of 10 weeks. Before starting, I already knew that I was going to have to listen to a teacher bitch about weed and alcohol for two hours. That’s a given. But other than that, I went into the course totally blind, not knowing what to expect.
Often we weed-smoking Virginians turn a blind eye to cops riding past us because we believe the worst that can happen if we’re caught with a little bit of bud in our car is a ticket. But if there’s one reason never to spark up while you drive, it’s VASAP. I’m here to share my VASAP experience so that if the police ever catch you fellow VA pot smokers out there riding around with a joint, you can brace yourselves for the bullshit to follow.
Back in 2017, I was pulled over one night for an expired inspection. I already knew it was expired, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see those blue and red lights flashing behind me. Little did I realize, my car reeked of pot and I was about to receive my first possession charge on top of a ticket for my expired inspection on my birthday. Not exactly the gifts I hoped for.
So the officer pulled me over and asked me if I knew why he was stopping me. Before I could even answer, I got hit with “Have you been smoking marijuana, ma’am?” My heart instantly sank. All I could think to say was no, believing that would somehow work. But of course, it didn’t, and I was requested to step out of the vehicle.
Before searching my car, the officer called for backup. All the while, I was standing there freezing my ass off, wondering how my birthday went south so fast. I was literally just having dinner with friends 15 minutes prior to this nonsense.
Finally, backup arrived and the search began. Not only did the officer find my blunt roach chilling in one of the cup holders, but he also saw my stash bag that contained my bowl and an eighth of bud that I had just bought. Meanwhile, I was chatting with the other two officers, who were acting oddly chill, saying things like “This happens all the time” and “You’ll just get a ticket, it’s not a big deal.” Lies.
The officers were right in that people get busted with weed all the time in Virginia. But what they failed to tell me was that an eighth of bud was about to cost me my license for six months and nearly $1,000 in fines and fees, including VASAP.
My court day came, I was found guilty and then sentenced to attend VASAP. Once I received my orientation letter in the mail a few weeks later, I headed to the VASAP office. For about an hour, four other people and I answered questions so they could determine how severe our “problem” was and put us in the proper courses. Again, the classes generally last for about ten weeks. But depending on how honestly you answer those questions, you could find yourself taking more than you expected. That wasn’t about to be me, not for something as harmless as weed.
I made sure to answer every question appropriately. As a result, my caseworker found that my “substance abuse” wasn’t all that severe, and they put me into their standard 10-week class. A damn near three months later, I began the course. They couldn’t fit me in any sooner because all the classes were filled up. Go figure.
During the Criminal Justices Services Board meeting on December 6, 2012, the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (VASAP) was recognized for their exceptional efforts in promoting public safety throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in support of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test training program. Department of Criminal Justice Services’ Director Garth Wheeler presented the award to VASAP. Photo by Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services via Flickr
I’m not going to go into detail about all ten of the two-hour long classes because only one of them actually discussed marijuana. That’s right. I paid almost 400 bucks to learn about alcohol, which clearly isn’t my thing seeing as I was pulled over for weed. I sure did feel like an alcoholic, though.
Once a week for ten weeks, I had to blow through a breathalyzer. And if you ever forgot to bring in the test tube the teacher gave you the first day of class, she would report it to your caseworker. The same thing goes for the course book they give you, which is filled with questions for you to answer related to your offense.
For a while there, I was wondering if VASAP would even make me submit to a drug test. But of course, they did, right after Christmas and again after New Years. How convenient.
I did manage to stop smoking weed for 20 days. But after sitting through an unbelievably racist hour-long video on the fourth day of class that was about marijuana and primarily featured black offenders, I was over the bullshit and ready to spark one up as soon as I left. And I did.
How did I pass my two drug tests for VASAP successfully? Well, it turns out they were unsupervised. Thank God. I also knew someone who could provide clean urine, so it wasn’t all that hard, although it was uncomfortable.
Both times I had to submit a sample, I would boil the clean piss to 108 degrees Fahrenheit inside of an airtight container small enough to carry on me without being too obvious, but large enough to hold the right amount of urine. As for where I put that bottle, well, let’s just say I’m a female that already comes equipped with a place that can keep urine at the precise temperature needed to pass the test.
When I would arrive at the clinic to take the drug test, I would anxiously sit there with the bottle shoved between my legs until they called me. All I could do was count down the minutes and pray that the urine would still be warm by the time the nurse called me back.
Once the nurse called my name, I followed her to a small room; she had me empty my pockets and requested that I place my belongings inside of a locked cabinet. Afterward, she handed me the container to piss in, and permitted me to enter the sinkless bathroom and shut the door. The rest was a breeze.
Both times I was drug tested I passed by merely dumping clean urine into a container. To be that much more convincing, I also would toss a sheet of toilet paper into the toilet, which was full of blue water that they would not flush, in case folks attempted to use any for dilution.
What I took away from VASAP
The goal of VASAP is to encourage offenders to stop smoking weed and drinking alcohol. I can’t speak for those that prefer booze, but I can honestly say that as a cannabis consumer it did the opposite for me. If anything, it only made me want to smoke more.
My instructor couldn’t even spell the word “marijuana,” or properly use the words there, their, and they’re. I spent most classes correcting her spelling and grammar in my head. Either that or I would joke about it with a classmate.
Perhaps the only thing I took away from the time I spent in VASAP is just how much of a joke it is. For substances that can actually kill you, like alcohol, yes. But for a harmless plant like cannabis? No. VASAP barely even discusses weed at all. The one time it did, it used a sensationalistic video featuring a woman frantically searching under couch cushions for weed like it was crack. I thought to myself, why does Virginia still thinks it’s acceptable to display cannabis users as fiends despite legalization sweeping the nation?
Someday, hopefully, the Commonwealth of Virginia will realize that VASAP is by no means effective or appropriate for us weed smokers. Sure, it’s inconvenient and costly. But when all is said and done, and maybe even sooner than that, we are just going back to doing what we love most anyway.
Photo by Kerry via Flickr