A Democratic takeover could make Virginia more marijuana-friendly. But legalization may still be years away.

By: - October 17, 2019 12:05 am

Ever since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012, cannabis-skeptical Republicans have controlled at least one chamber of the Virginia General Assembly.

In a few months, that could change. If Democrats win full control of the statehouse next month by gaining four seats, Virginia would enter unknown territory on marijuana policy, with new faces at the helm of legislative committees that have resisted sweeping change.

Even if power changes hands, supporters of marijuana reform say Virginia may still be years away from legalizing recreational use. But several Democrats said decriminalization — reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil violation more akin to a traffic ticket — could be a near-term priority if their party wins control.

“I think we could do decriminalization in the first session and then get to work on a larger study about how and when we could move toward legal and regulated adult use,” said Attorney General Mark Herring (D), a legalization supporter who’s announced a run for governor in 2021. “Obviously we’d need to bring a lot of stakeholders together to do that. It’s a step that I think Virginians are ready for.”

Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, who unsuccessfully filed a 70-page marijuana legalization bill in the 2019 legislative session, predicted the state would most likely conduct a study before legalization could gain serious traction.

“Legalization is still a ways off,” Heretick said. “But I think the assembly would be looking at marijuana legislation with a very different eye than we’ve seen in the past decade.”

Within the last few years, policymakers have slowly warmed to medical cannabis, authorizing a limited dispensary program that’s scheduled to begin operations before the end of the year. The five licensed cannabis producers will offer CBD (cannabidiol) and THC products like oils, sprays and capsules. They will not be allowed to sell smokable medical marijuana.

Regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in control, the medical cannabis program is expected to continue to expand, possibly with the approval of more dispensary locations and the establishment of a new regulatory board to oversee cannabis in Virginia.

“If the majority were to remain the same, we would continue to see measured, incremental and slow progress when it comes to marijuana policy reform,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of cannabis reform group Virginia NORML. “If the majority were to shift to Democrats, that would create a pathway for much more robust reform, including decriminalization.”

Several Republican lawmakers contacted for this story declined to comment.

At a town hall meeting in Northern Virginia last month, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said he plans to reintroduce a decriminalization bill next year so that minor pot convictions don’t cause more Virginians’, particularly people of color, to lose their jobs, driver’s licenses, student aid and other benefits.

“I support full legalization,” Ebbin said. “But I think the place to start, at least in Virginia, is with decriminalization.”

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, said he will reintroduce a legalization bill for the 2020 session and a separate measure to expunge “all criminal records for misdemeanor and felony cannabis possession” if Virginia were to decriminalize or legalize pot.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) supports marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis, but he has not called for outright legalization.

The state’s fledgling medical cannabis program has drawn bipartisan support, and some Republicans have shown interest in going further.

Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in 2017, proposed what he called a “three strikes and you’re in law,” a version of decriminalization that would end criminal charges for first and second simple marijuana possession offenses.

Even as attitudes change, marijuana arrests have spiked. In 2018, Virginia law enforcement agencies reported almost 29,000 such arrests, the highest level in 20 years.

Under existing law, a first conviction for marijuana possession can carry a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. Subsequent convictions can bring fines of up to $2,500 and up a year in jail.

Some local prosecutors have announced they’ll no longer prioritize marijuana possession cases, but Herring said that’s not a substitute for a “unified and consistent” statewide policy.

“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working. And it has not been for years,” Herring said.

A Virginia State Crime Commission study on decriminalization completed in 2017 found that an “extremely low” number of offenders get jail time in cases where marijuana possession was the only offense.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who requested the decriminalization study, filed a bill in 2018 to reduce penalties for pot possession and make it easier for first offenses to be expunged. That legislation easily passed the Senate with bipartisan support but failed in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

Recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Decriminalization measures have passed in 26 states and D.C.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.