General Assembly closes the door to marijuana legalization until 2021

By: - February 5, 2020 7:35 pm

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The General Assembly shut down proposals to legalize marijuana for the year, but lawmakers said this week they would study the issue and potentially move forward when they reconvene in 2021.

Both the House and the Senate are instead advancing decriminalization bills that would punish possession of a half-ounce or less of the plant — presently a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail — with a civil fine. The House is proposing a $25 penalty and the Senate is proposing $50.

“I hope we’re making enough of a stride in the right direction,” said Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News. “I personally hope that we can achieve in the next year legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth.”

The House Courts of Justice Committee voted on Wednesday night to refer three legalization bills, filed by Democratic Dels. Jennifer Carrol Foy, Lee Carter and Steve Heretick, for study.

They then voted 12-8 along party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing, to send decriminalization legislation filed by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, to the floor of the House.

The vote disappointed some advocates, who have persistently argued that merely reducing the penalty for possession will not alleviate the problem Democrats have said they hope to address —  disproportionate enforcement experienced by minority neighborhoods.

Herring acknowledged those criticisms but called the legislation an important first step.

“I recognize that decriminalization will not eliminate the racial disparities within the issues surrounding marijuana,” she said, but “it will prevent low level offenders from receiving jail time.”

No legalization bills were filed in the Senate, but the chamber is also requesting a study on the issue as it advances its own decriminalization bill. Both versions would eliminate harsher penalties for concentrated forms of marijuana like hash oil and create a presumption that possession of less than half an ounce is for personal use.

The House version also proposes sealing records of past convictions and prohibiting employers and schools from requiring an applicant to disclose any past arrests, charges or convictions.

Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, worried that provision would make it difficult for employers to screen candidates for demanding positions like commercial driving.

Supporters of the bill argued they would still be able to inquire about past convictions for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.