Virginia lawmakers vote to decriminalize marijuana, set $25 civil penalty for possession

By: - March 8, 2020 3:03 pm

(Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Possession of small amounts of marijuana will no longer be punishable by jail time in Virginia under decriminalization legislation lawmakers sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday.

“This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the Senate.

Like a traffic ticket

Under the legislation lawmakers passed, the drug will remain illegal, but violations of the law will be treated like minor traffic violations. The bill sets a $25 civil fine for possession of up to an ounce of the plant or products derived from it, including hash and oil concentrates. The legislation also seals records of past and future convictions and prohibits employers and educational institutes from inquiring about violations, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies.

Currently possession of a half-ounce or less is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of hash and other concentrates is punished as a felony. And while hefty fines and driver’s license suspensions are more common in practice than jail time, a point-in-time count in July 2017 found 127 people were being held in jail solely on a marijuana charge, according to a State Crime Commission report.

The decriminalization bill won bipartisan support in both chambers, passing the House on a 56-36 vote and the Senate 27-12. If Gov. Ralph Northam, who has endorsed an earlier iteration of the legislation, agrees to the final bill, it will go into effect July 1, making Virginia the 26th state to either decriminalize the drug or legalize recreational adult use.

“This is an enormous victory for Virginians, a super majority of whom have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of marijuana possession,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws.

Climbing arrests and disproportionate enforcement

Marijuana arrests reached their highest levels in at least 20 years in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, with police agencies around the state reporting nearly 29,000 arrests.

Lawmakers who championed the proposal called it an important step to address disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws on black residents, who in some localities accounted for as much as 80 percent of arrests but only 42 percent of the population despite surveys showing black and white Americans use the drug at roughly the same rates.

That disparity led a handful of local prosecutors to attempt to take matters into their own hands, but judges mostly refused to go along with the blanket-dismissal policies they announced.

Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Virginia Marijuana Justice, pressed lawmakers to go further and fully legalize the drug this year, arguing disproportionate enforcement will continue under decriminalization, albeit with lessened penalties.

House and Senate leaders said that while they appreciated the argument, the bill is an important step that will prevent low level offenders from receiving jail time.

Another area of concern was whether police should still be able to initiate searches based on the smell of marijuana. Defense attorneys and public defenders have long been skeptical of the number of searches justified under such pretenses and the fact that they often don’t turn up the drug officers said they smell.

But an amendment proposed by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, to end the practice, was rejected in the House of Delegates, where Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Arlington, who authored the House’s version of the bill, said that “until it’s legalized, I don’t think we can constraint law enforcement on their observations.”

Lawmakers to take up legalization next year

Northam made clear before the session began that he doesn’t yet support fully legalizing the drug and House lawmakers rejected such proposals before they reached the floor.

But both the House and the Senate agreed to study legalization proposals and take them up again next year. “As soon as we get these studies concluded, I think we’ll have a better sense of how quickly that sort of thing can move through,” Ebbin said.

Other lawmakers were less circumspect.

“Legalization next year!” tweeted Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Arlington.

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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.