Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill into law that will decriminalize cannabis possession from July 1, 2020. Virginia now becomes the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana possession in the US.

Current Virginian law classifies marijuana possession as a criminal offense subject to a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, a criminal record and the potential loss of driving privileges. Under the new law, marijuana possession of up to one ounce is a civil violation subject to a maximum $25 fine without arrest and no criminal record. Furthermore, the criminal records of individuals charged with cannabis possession are sealed from employers and school administrators.

Virginia’s marijuana decriminalization bill enjoyed bipartisan, bicameral support and was spearheaded by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) and House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring (D).

“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,” said Sen. Ebbin.

Virginia’s cannabis arrests hit a ten year peak in 2018 with nearly 30,000 made by law enforcement. Between July 2018 and June 2019, more than 15,000 Virginians were convicted for a first or second cannabis possession offense, with charges disproportionately brought against racial minorities. In the face of increasing marijuana arrest rates and convictions, two newly-elected Virginia prosecutors said they will no longer pursue low-level cannabis possession offenses in their counties.

Delegate Herring applauded the decriminalization bill’s passage into law as an important step towards remedying the harm of cannabis prohibition whilst cautioning that more work is to be done.

“[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,” Herring said.

Democrat lawmakers in Virginia have made use of their majorities in Congress since 2019 to take long overdue action on marijuana reform in a state where the majority of its residents are in favor of legalized cannabis yet drug laws remained punitive. The Virginia General Assembly passed eighteen cannabis-related bills in the 2020 session.

The progress was also welcomed by marijuana reform organization NORML who helped craft the new legislation.

“NORML is proud to have worked alongside Senator Ebbin and Delegate Herring, both longtime champions of evidence-based cannabis policy,” said NORML development director, Jenn Michelle Pedini.

“This victory comes after many years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its membership. 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,” Pedini added.

In addition to the marijuana decriminalization bill, Gov. Northam signed another bill into law to formally legalize and expand the state’s medical cannabis program. The bill ensures that qualifying medical marijuana patients are not arrested or denied any right or privilege for their participation in Virginia’s medical cannabis program. The first state dispensaries are expected to open their doors within the next month or two.

“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,” said longtime medical cannabis advocate Senator Dave Marsden (D-37).

NORML’s Pedini hailed these further protections and the raft of other cannabis-related legislation pursued by Virginia’s General Assembly.

“Later this year, Virginia patients will finally have access to medical cannabis products and explicit legal protections thanks to Senator Marsden’s legislation. Additional dispensing facilities, telemedicine, and program registration for nonresidents are among some of the many legislative improvements we were able to accomplish this year,” Pedini said.

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