Broad changes to marijuana laws swept through the 2020 Virginia General Assembly. Today, the legislature approved SB2 and HB 972 to decriminalize marijuana possession. Those in possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use will no longer be subject to criminal prosecution and will instead face a maximum $25 civil penalty. The bipartisan, bicameral effort led by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30) and House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring (D-46), also allows for the sealing of records for misdemeanor arrests, charges, convictions, and deferred dispositions for marijuana possession from employers and schools, and redefines extractions previously considered hashish as marijuana. The legislation now heads to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk for approval.
“This long overdue victory comes after years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its members. A supermajority of Virginians have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of personal possession, and the legislature has finally taken action to turn public opinion into public policy,” said NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of the state affiliate, Virginia NORML.
Commenting on the final passage, Senator Ebbin said, “this is a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia. The prohibition on marijuana has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year. It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights.”
Delegate Herring said this “is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased. This bill will not eliminate the racial disparities surrounding marijuana, but it will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization in coming years with a framework that addresses both public safety and equity in an emerging market.”
Governor Northam has spoken in favor of decriminalizing marijuana violations and expunging past convictions as has Attorney General Mark Herring. “Decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path towards legal, regulated adult use, and one many thought was still years away, but we cannot stop now. We’ve shown that smart, progressive reform is possible and we must keep going,” General Herring told Virginia NORML.
The legislature has approved multiple bills that call for the study of establishing a regulatory framework for adult-use. This effort is intended to result in legislation and a report in advance of the 2021 Virginia General Assembly.
“As legislators became more comfortable with medical cannabis products, they recognized that patients and legal guardians of children and incapacitated adults need the protections of lawful possession instead of the affirmative defense. That is what SB 1015 provides — a statutory protection against prosecution, not merely an affirmative defense,” remarked Senator Dave Marsden (D-37), longtime champion of medical cannabis patients in the Commonwealth.
“As Virginia’s program finally begins to provide patients access to products in 2020, the explicit legal protections and additional dispensing facilities established by Senator Marsden’s bills are much needed improvements from which patients and caregivers will benefit greatly,” said Pedini.