Virginia’s Special Legislative Sessions Considers More Macro and Micro Cannabis Reforms

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The special legislative session convened by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam began last week on Tuesday August 18, and among the issues discussed are ongoing changes both big and small to cannabis reform in the state. 

For months, advocates have pushed Northam on the issue of cannabis legalization—something Northam has been less vocal about even as he has framed decriminalization of cannabis as a racial equity issue since 2017.

In June, Virginia’s Black Legislative Caucus called for a special session to address criminal justice reform in response to the police killing of George Floyd and that included cannabis legalization: “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 press release from the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus read. A section of the press release labelled, “Continue the Fight for Criminal Justice Reform,” included, “implementing automatic expungement,” “reinstituting parole,” “passing cash bail reform,” “increasing good behavior sentence credits,” and “legalizing marijuana.”

On August 11, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring presented his priorities for criminal justice reform and policing reform for the special session which included expanding expungement opportunities for Virginia and cannabis legalization.

“Attorney General Herring helped successfully decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but believes Virginia needs to continue on to full legal, regulated adult use as quickly as possible, because the social and human costs of prohibition fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” the press release from Herring’s office reads. “In 2018, there were nearly 29,000 marijuana arrests, and the Virginia Crime Commission found that from 2007 to 2016, 46% of all individuals arrested for first offense marijuana possession were African American, despite being just 20% of Virginia’s population.”

And as the Outlaw Report noted last week, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wrote a letter to Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, requesting the General Assembly special session address cannabis legalization, connecting it to “increasing equity and inclusion.”

Along with exploring cannabis legalization, there are a number of bills tied to cannabis. Perhaps most importantly, there is Senate Bill 5029/House Bill 5058 which reduces the severity of a number of traffic offenses but also no longer allows police officers to search a person or a person’s vehicle based only on the smell of cannabis. 

As The Outlaw Report has frequently stressed, police smelling cannabis or claiming to smell cannabis is frequently used as an excuse to get inside a citizen’s house, car, or pockets. In 2019, for a cannabis arrests project for the Baltimore Fishbowl, Neill Franklin, a former police officer who now runs the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), explained the power police put in smelling cannabis. 

“Marijuana is still the number one reason the police are using to sidestep the Fourth Amendment and get into people’s car, pocket or home,” Franklin said. “Constitutionally, it’s wrong.”

Last month, Maryland’s Court Of Appeals ruled that a police officer can no longer use the smell of cannabis as a reason to search and arrest someone. That ruling however, does not apply to vehicles, which makes Virginia’s SB 5029/HB 5058 especially notable.

Additionally, Virginia’s special legislative session will consider Senate Bill 5013, which would allow those that receive a court summons for being charged civilly for decriminalized cannabis possession to pay their $25 ticket ahead of time without having to go to court while Senate Bill 5043 would allow Virginians to expunge their records for misdemeanor cannabis possession.

Virginia state capitol photo by Felix Lipov via Shutterstock

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