Cannabis Decriminalization in Virginia Likely Due to Several Bills

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The future of Virginia cannabis reform will depend on the success of several bills currently being considered by the General Assembly. Currently, Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governor’s office, so the possibility of decriminalization looks hopeful.

In a press release, Governor Ralph Northam said, “All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system. My proposed criminal justice reform legislation and budget initiatives will combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure meaningful second chances for those who have paid their debts to society.”

In 2018, Virginia hit its highest levels of cannabis arrests in at least 20 years with nearly 29,000 arrests, according to The Washington Post. While African-Americans make up 19% of the state’s population, they accounted for nearly half of all cannabis convictions in 2018. 

Possession of cannabis in the state is a Class 1 misdemeanor with punishment up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500 for a first offense. Subsequent offenses can lead to up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. CBD oil is permitted for medical use.

In late January, the Senate Judiciary Criminal Law Subcommittee advanced a bill, known as SB 2, to decriminalize marijuana. Sen. Adam Ebbin’s legislation wants to downgrade the offense of possession of up to one ounce of cannabis to a maximum $50 civil penalty. It would also increase the amount necessary for what would be considered “intent to distribute,” from one half of an ounce to one ounce. Lawmakers removed its expungement language before approval.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini described the vote of approval as “a historic step in the right direction,” adding, “Decriminalization, however, is not a solution to marijuana criminalization.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia publicly opposes SB 2, tweeting, “It would not stop the harm on POC.” Instead, the organization supports HB 1507, legislation introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy. This bill would exclude marijuana from a list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess. Additionally, it would ensure that no medical doctor or pharmacist is prosecuted for dispensing or distributing cannabis for medical purposes.

Del. Steve E. Heretick has also shown support for reducing punishments for possession in his legislation, HB 265. This bill hopes to impose a civil penalty of no more than $25 with substance abuse screening provisions applying only to criminal violations or to civil violations by a minor. It would also decrease the penalty for distribution or possession with intent to sell more than one-half ounce but not more than five pounds of marijuana.

Additional bills that propose cannabis decriminalization include Del. Steve E. Heretick’s HB 269 and Del. Lee Carter’s HB 87. The former bill would eliminate criminal penalties for cannabis possession for those 21 years of age and older, while also decriminalizing possession for those under 21 years of age with a civil penalty of no more than $50 for a first violation. Subsequent violations would raise to a $100 penalty for a second violation and a $250 penalty for a third or subsequent violation. The bill establishes a regulatory scheme with a 9.7 percent tax on retail cannabis and retail cannabis products. The majority of the revenue, 67 percent, would be deposited into a general fund with 33 percent of the revenues used solely for purposes of public education, deposited into a “Retail Marijuana Education Support Fund.”

Carter’s HB 87 eliminates criminal penalties for possession of cannabis for persons who are 21 years of age or older. For those under the age of 21, Carter’s bill also decriminalizes cannabis possession, while providing a civil penalty of no more than $100 for possession of two and one-half ounces or less of marijuana or 12 or fewer marijuana plants. For possession of more than two and one-half ounces of marijuana or 12 marijuana plants, the civil penalty would amount to no more than $500.

Carter’s bill also hopes to expand the legal medical uses of cannabis from only cancer and glaucoma to any condition or disease that the prescribing doctor may deem beneficial. It establishes a regulatory scheme for the regulation of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and testing facilities as well as secure transporters, retail stores, and microbusinesses. 

HB 87 has additional perks, including a tax of 10 percent on cannabis and cannabis products sold by retail stores and microbusinesses. The first $20 million of revenue would go directly to the Veterans Treatment Fund, established in the bill, with the remaining tax receipts distributed to the localities in which the businesses operate.

If there’s one other bill worth keeping an eye on, it’s Del. Charniele L. Herring’s HB 972. This bill decriminalizes simple cannabis possession and provides a civil penalty of no more than $50. Public consumption or ingestion of cannabis would result in a fine of no more than $250. Jail time is still possible under this legislation for those who smoke or ingest cannabis while driving or operating a motor vehicle or watercraft with a penalty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and confinement in jail for no more than 30 days and fined no more than $500.

Final approval of Herring’s legislation would also result in the creation of a work group that would study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of cannabis. This group would be made up of the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security.

On February 5, the House Courts of Justice Committee approved Herring’s bill, which has the support of Northam. This was the first time the committee approved a decriminalization bill, according to Pedini in an interview with Marijuana Moment.

For a quick, easy, and visual guide on all of the legislation worth keeping an eye on in 2020, see the following infographic.

Photo via Lukasz Stefanski/Shutterstock

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