Virginia Likely to Become 27th State to Decriminalize Cannabis

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Virginia is poised to decriminalize cannabis this year after the Senate and House approved legislation that is set on eliminating jail time for simple cannabis possession. 

Last week, the Virginia Senate approved Sen. Adam Ebbin’s SB 2, which would reduce the punishment of simple cannabis possession to a $50 civil penalty or five hours of community service.

That same week, the House of Delegates passed Del. Charniele Herring’s HB 972, which has similar goals to Ebbin’s legislation. This bill would decriminalize cannabis possession and provide a civil penalty of no more than $25. The bill also proposes making cannabis possession arrests, charges, and convictions not open to the public. Finally, the legislation would create a work group to study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of cannabis. This one bill incorporates three other pieces of legislation—HB 265, HB 301, and HB 481—which have been previously discussed by The Outlaw Report’s guide on current, local, pro-cannabis plans.

The current punishment in the state is a maximum fine of $500 and a 30-day or less jail sentence for a first offense. Subsequent offenses result in a Class 1 misdemeanor. The bill also raises the threshold amount of cannabis subject to the offense of distribution or possession with intent to distribute from one-half ounce to one ounce. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has already shown support for cannabis decriminalization. In a speech made in January 2019, Northam said, “We need to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely. This means decriminalizing marijuana possession—and clearing the records of people who’ve gotten in trouble for it.”

Ebbins’ bill is “a step in the right direction for Virginia,” according to Justin Strekal, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in an interview with The Outlaw Report. Strekal was the lead patron on the bill and helped draft the initial version of the bill in 2015.

“It’s our hope that it will pass in the other chamber and be signed into law,” Strekal said.

Attorney General Mark Herring has also shown support for these bills, saying in a press release, “For too long, Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records but with these votes that is finally coming to an end. I want to thank my colleagues in both the House and the Senate for joining me in making this issue a priority and I look forward to seeing the progress we can make in the coming years.”

Critics of the two bills argue that they don’t go far enough. Del. Don Scott, Jr. said, “This is not what we wanted … which is full legalization.” 

Decriminalization is “essentially a half-measure.” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “It will do nothing to address the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws across races.”

In the last decade, cannabis arrests and convictions have steadily increased. The number of first-time cannabis convictions rose from 6,533 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2017, a 53% increase. Arrests for cannabis possession have increased by about 220%, from around 9,000 in 1999 to nearly 29,000 in 2018.

Photo via Victor Moussa/Shutterstock

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