Virginia lawmakers have been busy approving a raft of limited marijuana reform legislation during a special summer session, with full cannabis legalization also under consideration.
So far in the session, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from stopping and searching a vehicle, or seizing property, on the basis of smelling marijuana. Virginia decriminalized cannabis possession from July 1 but, as a recent ACLU report makes clear, stop-and-search racial disparities persist even in states that pass such legislation.
Virginia’s marijuana arrest rates reached a ten year peak in 2018. This, in part, prompted Virginia lawmakers to take overdue action on marijuana reform.
“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color, this is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D), the main sponsor of the bill, as reported by The Virginia Mercury.
The bill would also reclassify marijuana possession in an automobile from a primary to a secondary offense, meaning a police officer wouldn’t be able to issue a summons unless the individual is also charged with a separate violation.
The Virginia House of Delegates approved its own version of the measure that would further ensure a secondary offense under VA state law cannot be considered a primary offense by local jurisdictions. This passed in a 54-44 vote. All that’s left for the measure to become law is for the chambers to present a unified bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, a supporter of marijuana reform, for his signature.
Virginia lawmakers have also looked at legislation seeking to build on the state’s move towards marijuana decriminalization in July. The House passed a bill that would allow individuals summoned for marijuana possession to pay the penalty straight away rather than having to first appear in court. This measure passed in a 29-7 vote.
Lawmakers in Virginia are also considering legislation to allow individuals with low-level marijuana convictions to petition the courts to expunge their criminal records, so long as they’ve paid all outstanding court fines and five years have passed since the end of their sentencing and/or probation. The Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee approved this bill, meaning a full floor vote is likely imminent.
Beyond incremental marijuana reform legislation, the special session has seen the introduction of a bill to legalize cannabis possession. Del. Jennifer Carroll (D), who is running for governor next year, introduced a bill that would add a clause to existing cannabis legislation, making it “unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance other than marijuana.”
The bill is currently with the House Courts of Justice Committee.
Full marijuana legalization with a regulated system of taxed production and sales in Virginia is also in the air. Under the provisions of Virginia’s decriminalization bill, a working group was established to research and make recommendations regarding an adult-use cannabis industry in the state. That group has met twice since marijuana was decriminalized and is due to submit its report to the legislature in November.