Virginia Lawmakers Pass Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

The decriminalization bill now awaits a final signature from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. 

The welcome to Virginia sign Source: iStock

Virginia recently decriminalized marijuana, removing the criminal penalty for minor possession. 

With the recent passage of the decriminalization bill, the criminal penalty for minor cannabis possession has officially been lowered to a civil offense, including a ticket and a $50 fine. 

Medical cannabis has been available to select patients in Virginia since as early as 2015, when the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation making it legal for doctors to prescribe CBD and THC-A to patients with intractable epilepsy.

That law was then expanded to include a larger list of qualifying patients in 2018. 

Since then, however, for most citizens of the Commonwealth, marijuana use has remained illegal

Residents caught with under half an ounce of marijuana faced criminal charges and up to 30 days in jail as well as a fine of up to $500. 

Just last month, the Virginia Senate voted 27-13 to approve a bipartisan bill to decriminalize cannabis across the state.

Within weeks, the Virginia House of Representatives approved similar legislation, with 63 voting in favor and 35 voting against the bill to decriminalize marijuana across the state.  

The decriminalization bill now awaits a final signature from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. 

Governor Northam has previously expressed his support of marijuana decriminalization and endorsed an earlier version of the bill.

Gov. Northam told the Virginia Mercury in January, “Studies show that these arrests disproportionately impact people of color. Decriminalization of simple possession will lead to fewer people in our court system and in our jails. It will mean fewer people with criminal records.”

A press release by Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michell Pedini reads, in part, “This long overdue victory comes after years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its members. A supermajority of Virginians have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of personal possession, and the legislature has finally taken action to turn public opinion into public policy.”

Not everyone is in favor of the move towards decriminalization, as opposed to legalizing cannabis on the recreational level. 

According to ACLU Director of Advocacy Jenny Glass, “We feel that the decriminalization bills may undo some harm, but also have some unintended consequences by enacting fines and fees and an entirely new system we’re going to have to dismantle.”

Unfortunately, it may still be a while before the state of Virginia is ready to legalize adult-use of recreational cannabis.  

On the topic of outright legalization, added Gov. Northam, “We’re not there yet…If we move in that direction that’s something I’ll consider. It’s a whole other discussion, I think, as a pediatrician, whether we condone the use of drugs.”

Interestingly, Democratic candidate for the 2021 Virginia governorship Attorney General Mark Herring is running his campaign on a pro-marijuana platform. 

At a 2019 cannabis summit, AG Herring reportedly said, “Decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path towards legal, regulated adult use, and one many thought was still years away, but we cannot stop now. We’ve shown that smart, progressive reform is possible and we must keep going.”

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