Lawmakers are divided on timelines, and the extent to which Virginia should move toward outright legalization, but one thing seems clear: marijuana reform is on the agenda at the General Assembly.
With Democrats controlling both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office for the first time in over 25 years, lawmakers have introduced numerous bills in the current session in an effort to decriminalize and legalize marijuana.
Right now, Virginia permits the use of CBD oil for medical use, and is one of 24 states who have not decriminalized cannabis. There are 12 states in the U.S. who have fully legalized the sale and use of marijuana.
Possession of marijuana is a Class I misdemeanor in the Commonwealth, while subsequent offenses are punishable by a maximum amount of 12 months in jail or a fine up to $2,500. Selling over half-an-ounce of marijuana is punishable by a minimum of one year in prison.
“You see prosecutors in Virginia saying they’re no longer going to prosecute [marijuana] crimes — [charges] disproportionately target people of color and there are more serious crimes that prosecutors should be prosecuting,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
Some bills introduced reduce the penalties for marijuana possession, rather than legalizing the sales of it in stores and dispensaries. House Bill 265 decreases the maximum fine of marijuana possession from $500 to $25, turns the possession of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil penalty, and gives no criminal charge for possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana.
Advocates of such legislation believe there needs to be a more gradual process, beginning with decriminalizing before fully legalizing.
“I think there should be a study before legalization, because there are a lot of implications,” said Herring. “We have to think about how we want to regulate marijuana, the oils that are already causing health issues, and think about how this is all going to work together.”
Other legislation is advancing a fully legal system of cannabis sales. House Bill 87, put forward by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, creates a regulated system for marijuana cultivation facilities, marijuana manufacturing facilities, marijuana testing facilities, and retail marijuana stores by the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“If you simply legalize it and don’t create a system of legal sale, then organized crime will often step into that void, and it’s hard to get them out,” said Del. Nancy Guy, D-Virginia Beach. “Regulation and taxation would also create a revenue stream for the state.”
“Decriminalization does nothing to address the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws, nor does it provide for public and consumer safety or prevent youth access,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director at Virginia NORML. “Legalization reflects the reality that cannabis is already here, and provides lawmakers the opportunity to govern its use and sale accordingly.”
Virginia spent $81.2 million in 2016 enforcing marijuana laws, while marijuana related arrests reached an all-time high in 2018 with almost 29,000. A recent poll by Christopher Newport University found that 83 percent of Virginians support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Governor Northam signed a medical marijuana bill in 2018, permitting the supply of CBD oil or THC-A oil to treat symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner. However, legislation to legalize cannabis use for those 21 or older was struck down by the House Courts of Justice Committee last year. With the Democrats taking power in the General Assembly, though, some legislators believe that the time for passage of such laws has arrived.
“Members of the General Assembly have unsuccessfully attempted for several years to introduce measures to decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana,” said Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth. “This year, such efforts are likely to finally find success.”