RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — On Thursday, Governor Ralph Northam officially signed Virginia’s biennial budget, as well as eight other bills from the General Assembly for which he had requested amendments in the General Assembly’s reconvened April 22 session.
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Among the bills formally signed was a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the commonwealth.
The governor had recommended that lawmakers amend HB 972 to extend Virginia’s study on the legalization of marijuana and not allow a trial by jury for the civil penalty of simple possession. But those proposed amendments were rejected by the General Assembly in their socially distanced April session.
So the law that will go into effect is the one originally passed, which scraps criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. It also creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana and eventually release a report on the matter – though that study will be shorter than Northam wanted.
Lawmakers this year killed bills that could have legalized the drug, opting for decriminalization as a slower step forward.
Supporters have argued the measure is needed, in part, because African Americans are disproportionately charged with drug crimes.
“Decriminalization is an incredibly important first step, and one that many thought we may never see in Virginia, but we cannot stop until we have legal and regulated adult use,” Attorney General Mark Herring Herring said in a statement earlier this year.
The new law, which takes effect July 1 despite the rejected amendments, reduces penalties for offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a civil violation, which means no arrest and no criminal record.
Current laws set fines up to $500, with possible jail time, for an offense classified as a misdemeanor.
The decriminalization bill got bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. But some lawmakers had doubts.
“We see that other states have done varying degrees of changes in their marijuana policy, and I think in those states, we’ve seen varying degrees of success and unintended consequences and problems that have arisen,” said Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert.
One of our local sheriffs told WHSV during the General Assembly’s initial session he thought the bill was “a horrible idea.”
According to data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, more than 15,000 people were convicted for a first or second marijuana possession offense from July 2018 to June 2019.
“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 new law also seals the criminal records of past marijuana offenders from employers and school administrators, and defines substances previously considered hashish as marijuana.
In addition to approving marijuana decriminalization, earlier this year, Gov. Northam also signed Senate Bill 1015, which states that no person may be arrested, prosecuted, or denied any right or privilege for participating in the state’s medical cannabis program.
That program is expected to be operational and dispensing cannabis products to authorized patients by mid-year. Northam also approved Senate Bill 976 expanding and improving the medical cannabis program, and suggested technical amendments which must be approved by the legislature before taking effect on July 1.
“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 Senator Dave Marsden (D-37).
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have either legalized or decriminalized the adult possession and use of marijuana.