The state of Virginia has recently decriminalized marijuana. Nicknamed the Mother of States, Virginia will now become the 27th state to decriminalize cannabis. Last month, Virginia lawmakers voted in favor of decriminalizing recreational cannabis, removing the criminal penalty for simple marijuana possession. The new law is set to go into effect on July 1st, 2020. The Virginia State Senate approved the legislation to decriminalize 27-13 on February 26th of this year; HB 972 passed the Virginia House of Representatives 57-39 just under two weeks later, on March 7th.
Last week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the decriminalization bill into law. A recent statement released by Gov. Northam reads, “Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system.” Referring collectively to several other pieces of pro-cannabis legislation that also passed in the last few weeks, Gov. Northam said in his statement, “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance.” According to Attorney General Mark Herring, with the passage of HB 972, the state of Virginia will now be “a more fair, just, and equal place.” AG Herring also released a statement saying “Decriminalization is an incredibly important first step, and one that many thought we may never see in Virginia, but we cannot stop until we have legal and regulated adult use.” Previously, Virginia residents found guilty of simple marijuana possession of under half an ounce of marijuana, faced up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine, and a permanent misdemeanor drug charge on their record. Now, under the new law, the first offense of minor possession of less than 1 ounce of cannabis has been lowered from a misdemeanor to a civil violation in the state of Virginia, with the punishment being similar to a parking ticket, and a maximum fee up of to $25. Importantly, according to the wording of the bill, HB 972 “makes records relating to the arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of possession of marijuana not open to public inspection and disclosure, except in certain circumstances…[and] prohibits employers and educational institutions from requiring an applicant for employment or admission to disclose information related to such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction.” In addition to the decriminalization bill, Gov. Northam has also signed multiple other related criminal justice bills in recent weeks, including SB 976 to regulate pharmaceutical processors and operation of cannabis dispensing facilities, as well as SB 1015, which prevents medical cannabis patients from being arrested or discriminated against for their participation in the state-run program. Democratic Senator Dave Marsden told WHSV 3, “As legislators become more comfortable with medical cannabis products, they recognized that patients and legal guardians of children and incapacitated adults need the protections of lawful possession instead of the affirmative defense. This is what SB 1015 provides – statutory protection against prosecution, not merely an affirmative defense.”