Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization policy went into effect on July 1 making it the 27th state to decriminalize simple marijuana possession.
The new law reflects recent shifts in public opinion, with 83% of Virginian voters supporting the decriminalization of cannabis, and 61% supporting the legalization of cannabis for adult personal use.
Under the old law, the first violations of marijuana possession imposed a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 30 days. Subsequent offenses were a class 1 misdemeanors and permanently visible on a criminal record. The new law removes these provisions.
The timing of Virginia’s decriminalization policy is significant.
Cannabis legalization efforts are often tied to racial justice movements. In a special legislative session scheduled for August, lawmakers will consider further criminal justice reform. Cannabis legalization may be a part of those considerations.
Marijuana Possession Will Incur a Small Fee in Virginia
According to the new law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana provides a civil penalty of a $25 maximum fee. Any simple marijuana possession violation will be charged by the same type of summons as a traffic violation.
The law also states that a simple marijuana possession violation will not show up on a person’s criminal record. However, if a person is found in possession of marijuana while operating a commercial motor vehicle, the violation will appear on their driving record.
Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring celebrated the law, acknowledging the futility and racial injustice of cannabis criminalization.
“Virginia’s approach to cannabis hasn’t been working for far too long, needlessly saddling Virginians, especially Black Virginians and people of color, with criminal records. Those days are now behind us,” Herring said in a press release.
“With this historic legislation, we are making Virginia a more just, fair, equal and progressive place. While decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path, we cannot stop until we have full legalization in the Commonwealth.”
The decriminalization law was introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin, who is now calling for the full legalization of marijuana in Virginia. Senator Ebbin’s statement links cannabis legalization with the current movement to address structural racism.
“The last few weeks have put a spotlight on realities that Black and Brown Americans experience daily. This has led to a much-needed national discussion of how best to reform policing,” Ebbins said.
“I will continue to work as an ally to communities of color to amplify their voices and pass legislation that reforms law enforcement and deconstructs systemic racism in our society.”
Virginians Don’t Have to Disclose Marijuana Possession Arrests
Although decriminalization falls short of full legalization, Virginia’s law includes measures that prevent a cannabis possession arrest from derailing a person’s life. The following privacy protections have been written into the law:
- Records related to the arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of possession of marijuana are not open to the public except in certain situations.
- Employers and educational institutions are not allowed to require applicants to disclose information about an arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of simple marijuana possession.
- State and local agencies, officials, and employees are prohibited from requiring applicants for licenses, permits, registration, or government services to disclose information about an arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of simple marijuana possession.
These protections directly address some of the ways that cannabis prohibition disparately impacts communities of color.
Black and Brown people are disproportionately arrested for pot possession. This means that they are also disproportionately impacted by policies that penalize having a criminal history.
Virginia’s decriminalization bill protects anyone who is arrested for marijuana possession from being excluded from employment, further education, and government programs. This protection takes a step toward equity.
Is Cannabis Legalization in Virginia on the Horizon?
Before legalization, states often conduct a study examining the benefits cannabis legalization could bring. Virginia is now assembling a working group to carry this task out.
Virginia’s marijuana decriminalization law mandates the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security to study the impact regulated cannabis for personal use would have on Virginia. The work group must provide a recommendation based on this study by November 30, 2020.
The study along with the political pressure coming from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) for criminal justice reform may foreshadow imminent cannabis legalization in the Commonwealth.
“The Commonwealth is past the point for studies on policing and law enforcement—immediate action must be taken to eliminate law enforcement abuse, prevent and punish racist behaviors, weed out institutional discrimination, and increase accountability at all levels of law enforcement,” the VLBC stated in a press release listing cannabis legalization as one of its priorities for the upcoming August special session.
Medical Marijuana in Virginia
Although the decriminalization of cannabis has attracted the most attention, Virginia’s medical marijuana laws have also been upgraded.
In the past, medical cannabis oil could contain no more than 0.3% THC. Additionally, it wasn’t fully legal. Instead, patients could provide an “affirmative defense” for possession as long as they were registered with the state.
A piece of legislation signed into law in April provides explicit protections for patients. If a patient has a valid written certification, they cannot be prosecuted for cannabis possession. Under the new law, medical cannabis preparations may contain up to 10 mg THC per dose.
Patients can currently access cannabidiol (CBD) oil containing less than 0.3% THC. The state estimates that cannabis oils containing up to 10% THC will be available by the end of summer 2020.
Patients must be registered with the Board of Pharmacy to access the medicine. They can begin the process after receiving written certification for cannabis oil from a physician that is registered with the Board.
Patients can register for medical cannabis online, however, registration must be renewed annually. The registration fee is $50.