Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam approved legislation to decriminalize cannabis possession and two others pieces of legislation to formally legalize and expand the state’s medical marijuana program.
Gov. Northam proposed technical amendments to two of the bills which now requires lawmaker approval before becoming law.
The decriminalization bill reduces possession of up to one ounce of cannabis to a civil violation subject to a maximum $25 fine. Currently, such violations are considered criminal misdemeanors, whereby an individual can be jailed for up to 30 days, lose their driving license and become saddled with a criminal record. The new law ensures these records are now sealed from prospective employers and school admissions faculties.
While more and more Virginians are now in favor of full marijuana legalization, there has also been an uptick in arrests for simple cannabis possession in the state.
“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and Governor Northam’s signature turns that public opinion into public policy,” said NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini.
The marijuana decriminalization legislation was a bicameral effort spearheaded by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) and Delegate Charniele Herring (D-46).
“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,” Sen. Ebbin said.
Delegate Herring welcomed the bill’s approval as the first step towards full cannabis legalization and mitigating racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.
“[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.
Gov. Northam endorsed cannabis decriminalization last year in his State of the Commonwealth address, while earlier this year, two newly-elected Virginia prosecutors said they will not pursue marijuana possession offenses in their counties. Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, also takes a dim view of cannabis prohibition. Last year, he urged pro-cannabis reform lawmakers to act quickly following state elections which resulted in Democratic majorities in the Virginia legislature. Now that they have done so, Herring hopes lawmakers can build on this momentum.
“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,” Herring said.
Gov. Northam also gave his approval to a medical marijuana bill, SB 1015, which ensures that no individual can be arrested, prosecuted, or denied any right or privilege due to their participation in Virginia’s medical cannabis program. Currently, medical marijuana patients only have the option of an affirmative defense in court if charged by police.
“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 Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37), one of the bill’s sponsors.
The measure is a much needed step in anticipation of the first medical cannabis dispensaries in Virginia opening.
“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,” said NORML’s Jenn Michelle Pedini.
Gov. Northam also approved SB 976 whilst proposing technical amendments, which expands and improves the state’s medical cannabis program by permitting a greater variety of cannabis-based products. While cannabis flower is still not permitted, Northam’s proposal would allow for stronger concentrations of permitted cannabis oils.
“If enacted, this legislation would give patients a greater variety of product to best treat their conditions, and allow for more locations across Virginia to dispense medical cannabis products to patients,” said Olivia Naugle, legislative coordinator for Marijuana Policy Project.
“We encourage the legislature to approve the governor’s recommendation.”