Virginia Ends Searches Based on Cannabis Smell Alone and Plans To Push Legalization

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia’s House and Senate are all in agreement over House Bill 5058 and Senate Bill 5029, which will prevent law enforcement from searching people, people’s homes and/or vehicles solely due to cannabis smell. The bill recently passed the House and the Senate and was then amended slightly by Northam.

That amendment did not weaken the intent of the bill though it did change language to make it clear that law enforcement can still stop those who are driving at night and do not have their headlights on or have a headlight or brake light out. The House and Senate accepted that amendment.

HB 5058 and SB 5029 were introduced during Virginia’s special legislative session this summer which was heavily focused on racial justice and arrives on the heels of Virginia decriminalizing up to an ounce of cannabis The law, which goes into effect on March 1, 2021, reads, “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully search or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana and no evidence discovered or obtained pursuant to a violation of this subsection, including evidence discovered or obtained with the person’s consent, shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.” 

National Organization For The Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Virginia’s Jenn Michelle Pedini praised the passing of the law.

“This is another victory for common sense marijuana law reform in Virginia. Decreasing non-essential interactions between law enforcement and otherwise law-abiding Virginians is now more important than ever,” Pedini said. “However, it is only the legalization of the responsible use of cannabis by adults that will end the Commonwealth’s failed experiment with prohibition and begin undoing the decades of damage done primarily to young, poor, Black, and Brown Virginians.”

And the cannabis reform keeps on coming to Virginia. On Monday November 16, Northam announced his intentions to facilitate the legalization of cannabis in Virginia.

“We are going to move forward with legalizing marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “I support that and am committed to doing it the right way.”

Northam added that the process will likely take a long time—18-24 months and according to his website, “the Northam Administration is working closely with lawmakers to finalize legislation in advance of the 2021 General Assembly session,”

Northam’s announcement arrived following the release of a report from The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) regarding cannabis. The report notes that the cannabis industry would add 11,000 jobs in Virginia and generate more than $300 million in taxes five years out. The report also argues that past cannabis convictions should be expunged (benefitting 120,000 Virginia or more, more than half of which are Black or POC) and notes that Black Virginians are arrested much higher than white Virginians for cannabis and legalization would reduce cannabis arrests by 84%. Additionally, JLARC’s report advises that legalization facilitates a racially equitable industry and that the General Assembly should act relatively quickly and  have legalization and regulation of cannabis ready to go in the next two years.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

Photo illustration by Kathy Wyche

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