Virginia Cannabis Decriminalization Is Official; ACLU Explains How Cops Can Still Bust You For Weed

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Last week, Virginia’s decriminalization bill allowing possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, was officially signed into law. 

For readers of The Outlaw Report, this is fairly anticlimactic given Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s public support of decriminalization for quite some time including during the 2017 election. Back in February, the Virginia Senate approved Senator Adam Ebbin’s Senate Bill 02, which would reduce the punishment of simple cannabis possession to a $50 civil penalty or five hours of community service and the House of Delegates passed Delegate Charniele Herring’s similar House Bill 972. And in April, Northam approved House Bill 972/Senate Bill 02, decriminalizing cannabis in Virginia with 17 amendments which have been bounced back and forth for the past month or so. 15 of those 17 amendments were approved by the Senate and the House. Rejected were amendments that would have delayed a study of cannabis legalization for adult use until November 30, 2021, and another amendment which would have made it so that someone civilly charged with cannabis possession could not request a jury trial. Following the approval of most of those amendments and the rejection of the two mentioned above, the bills were again revised, and sent back to Northam who signed them on May 21.

Cannabis decriminalization in Virginia begins on July 1. If you are caught in Virginia with an ounce or less of cannabis, you will be fined $25.

Executive Director of Virginia’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Jenn Michelle Pedini praised this decision and also made sure to push for legalization in Virginia. “This victory comes after many years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its membership,” Pedini said in a Virginia NORML press release. “And while we applaud Governor Northam, his administration, and the legislature for taking this step, it’s critical that they work swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults and begin undoing the damages prohibition has waged on tens of thousands of Virginians.”

Last week, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Virginia held a webinar titled, “Changes in Virginia’s Laws: Criminal Legal System,” and took some time during the presentation to discuss Virginia decriminalization. ACLU Virginia Legislative Director Ashna Khanna stressed that decriminalization does not mean legalization and if someone is asked if they are involved in illegal activity, cannabis consumption “still counts” as illegal activity.

Khanna also noted that the decriminalization law’s exception is intent to distribute: “That means if I have less than one ounce however police or the commonwealth attorneys believe that I am intending to distribute that marijuana, I can still be charged with a felony conviction which is at least two to five years in jail,” Khanna said.

Additionally, a person charged with decriminalization “does not have a right to counsel” because decriminalization makes possession of cannabis under one ounce a civil penalty rather than a criminal penalty: “That means before I could get an attorney and challenge the action of my possession of marijuana. However, now since this is a civil penalty, I will need to go out and hire a lawyer in order to fight this in court,” Khanna said.

Police can also still use the smell of cannabis as a justification for stopping and searching people, Khanna explained, and that juveniles who are caught possessing any amount of cannabis—even less than an ounce—are still charged criminally.

And Khanna again returned to concerns regarding racial disparities in how cannabis is policed (covered extensively in a recent ACLU report): “We wanted to limit the contact between law enforcement and community members and we didn’t think decriminalization went far enough because the police are still coming into contact with individuals and we know that is in racially disparate ways,” Khanna said.

You can watch “Changes in Virginia’s Laws: Criminal Legal System” embedded below. Following some COVID-19 updates, the first law discussed is cannabis decriminalization.

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