Gov. Northam renews calls to decriminalize marijuana in speech to General Assembly

Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night:

We want to keep people safe. But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety.

So I’m proposing that we decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.

Current law imposes a maximum 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.

Making simple possession a civil penalty will ease overcrowding in our jails and prisons, and free up our law enforcement and court resources for offenses that are a true threat to public safety.

This isn’t new territory for Northam, a Democrat who pledged to support decriminalization of marijuana on the campaign trail in 2017, but it’s the first time he’s publicly advocated for the policy change before the General Assembly.

At least five bills have been filed so far to decriminalize marijuana. Two of them would explicitly legalize the drug, including a measure proposed by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Hampton, which lays out a 150-page regulatory framework.

None are expected to go far in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

“Will Virginia eventually decriminalize personal possession of marijuana? Yes. Will it be in 2019? That’s very unlikely,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the Associated Press.

In his speech, which he delivered on the first day of the legislatures’ 45-day session, Northam also voiced support for other Democrat-backed criminal justice reforms, including raising the state’s felony larceny threshold, which is set at $500 and ending the state’s practice of suspending drivers licenses over unpaid court fines and fees.

“When we take away people’s driver’s licenses, we make it harder for them to get to work, and thus make it even more difficult for them to pay their court costs,” he said.