Virginia Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization

Virginia State Senate voted in favor of passing SB 2 to decriminalize marijuana. 

Virginia House Chamber House of Representatives chamber in the Virginia State Capitol building - Source: iStock

Cannabis could soon be decriminalized, but not legalized, in Virginia. 

Last Tuesday, the Virginia State Senate voted in favor of passing SB 2 to decriminalize marijuana. 

The bill, which decriminalizes misdemeanor possession of cannabis, is expected to be signed by the state’s pro-cannabis governor, Ralph Northam (D).

This happened just one day after the Virginia House approved similar legislation aimed at decriminalizing marijuana throughout the Commonwealth. 

Democratic House Majority Leader Charniele Herring first introduced the bill. 

Representative Herring has been a passionate advocate for the decriminalization of cannabis in recent years. 

In a Tweet posted last week, Rep. Herring said, “My bill, HB 972 just passed the House! It decriminalizes simple marijuana possession in the Commonwealth. Since this issue disproportionately affects people of color, it is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal justice system.”

Simple possession refers to cannabis that is solely intended for personal use. 

Earlier this month, Rep. Herring told Marijuana Moment, “This bill will not eliminate the racial disparities surrounding marijuana, but it will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move towards legalization in coming years with a framework that addresses both public safety and equity in a soon to be emerging market.”

Under the current law, Virginia residents caught for the first time with under half an ounce of cannabis can be arrested and face up to $500 in fines as well as up to 30 days in jail.

Rather than facing potential jailtime, those found with small amounts of marijuana will be assessed a minor fee instead. 

The bill also stops simple marijuana possession from going onto your permanent criminal record. Previous charges involving simple possession will be sealed, preventing employers from accessing them.

Finally, possession of cannabis oil, which was previously a felony in Virginia, will be treated the same way as cannabis. 

Now, state lawmakers will have to combine the two bills and resolve any differences in order to move forward. 

According to the House bill, HB 972, the new legislation “decriminalizes simple marijuana possession and provides a civil penalty of no more than $25…The bill provides that any violation of simple possession of marijuana may be charged by a summons in form the same as the uniform summons for motor vehicle law violations and that no court costs shall be assessed for such violations.”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has promised to make marijuana decriminalization a priority in 2020.

In his 2019 State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Northam expressed his support of decriminalization, saying, “We need to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely. This means decriminalizing marijuana possession – and clearing the records of people who’ve gotten in trouble for it.”

The change in the law effectively downgrades misdemeanor cannabis possession from a serious criminal offense to a relatively minor civil offense, like a traffic ticket.

Although it’s a far cry from all-out legalization, decriminalization is still a necessary step in the right direction.

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