The Virginia Legislature approved broad cannabis decriminalization legislation last week but lawmakers have no plans to pass recreational legalization this session. The measure passed by both the Senate and House of Delegates reduces the penalty for possession up to a half-ounce to $25. The current law calls for a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
The bill also requires that all previous convictions and records for simple possession be sealed and provisions requiring substance abuse screening and loss of driving privileges for juveniles caught possessing any amount of cannabis.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called for cannabis reforms on the campaign trail – and reiterated his support for legalization last January – and is expected to sign the bill into law.
However, despite the governor’s support and both chambers of the Legislature being controlled by Democrats, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring indicated that lawmakers would not consider adult-use legalization legislation this year.
“To legalize it now would not be good, but this hopefully would take us one step closer to reducing the arrest and jailing of people for simple possession.” — Herring, via Capital News Service
A 2017 study by the Virginia Crime Commission found that from 2007 to 2016, African Americans comprised nearly half of all arrests for first-time cannabis possession, despite comprising 20 percent of the state’s population. The commission suggested that 10,000 arrests could be prevented by decriminalizing possession.
Cannabis use and possession by adults is legalized in nearby Washington, D.C. but the federal government – which provides the budget for the District – prevents the city from implementing a taxed and regulated market.
Following the passage of the reforms, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (no relation to the house majority leader) said in a statement that they were “a step in the right direction” but cautioned that “the work is not done.” Herring has been a strong proponent for cannabis reforms in the state, including adult-use legalization.
According to a WAMU report, the Senate last week also advanced a measure allowing individuals to possess cannabis if they are a state-registered qualified patient and another bill to allow for broader expungement rules. Both of those bills still need House approval.
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