General Assembly Snuffs Marijuana Legalization Hopes for Now in Virginia

General Assembly advances marijuana decriminalization by Herring and Ebbin.

RICHMOND, Va. – Going into the 2020 legislative session, advocates say Democratic leaders had an ambitious marijuana reform agenda. By crossover day, several decriminalization bills passed their respective chambers, but hopes of legalization went up in smoke. Lawmakers, who say that the state isn’t ready for legalization yet, advanced decriminalization bills, incorporated a bulk of the measures and continued legalization measures to 2021.

House Bill 972, introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, replacing the current punishment of a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail with a $25 maximum fine and no criminal charges or jail time. Substance abuse screening and loss of driving privileges for marijuana possession would be enacted for juveniles. Opponents say the bill unfairly punishes juveniles more than adults. Herring’s bill incorporates three other decriminalization and possession bills. Police would handle the possession charge much like a summons for motor vehicle law violations, and no court costs would be incurred. The bill also mandates that previous simple possession convictions, charges and arrest records would be sealed.

“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 said during the third reading of the bill. The legislation passed with a 64-34 vote, garnering Republican support.

Senate Bill 2, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, also passed this week. Ebbin’s bill would decriminalize simple possession, providing a penalty of no more than $50 or five hours of community service.

SB 1015, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, would allow a person prescribed cannabidiol oil to avoid possession charges passed the Senate and is currently in a House committee.

The Senate also approved a study to explore how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022.

Advocates were most disappointed by the measures continued to the 2021 session. HB 87 and HB 269 proposed eliminating penalties for marijuana possession for persons over the age of 21 and decriminalizing for people under age 21. Those bills also tackled the regulation of marijuana retail.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder and executive director of Marijuana Justice, is disappointed that the General Assembly only advanced decriminalization measures, wishing that they had opted instead for HB 1507, which would make it illegal to possess a controlled substance other than marijuana unless the substance was prescribed. That bill, introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, was continued to the 2021 session.

Higgs Wise believes that arrests may decrease, but people of color will continue to disproportionately suffer from penalties and fines.

“We know that these penalties will be enforced more heavily on black and brown people and looking across the nation, decriminalization has only called for an increase in racial disparities,” Higgs Wise said.

Herring said her bill will not eliminate racial disparities surrounding marijuana. The bill aims to prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession as the commonwealth moves toward legalization.

“This is an important step in improving the criminal justice system,” Herring said in a statement released after the bill passed. “While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased.”

The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has frequently spoken out against decriminalization measures, saying that communities of color across the commonwealth are more than three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates.

“Lawmakers cannot claim progress on marijuana reform while still knowing that this legislation will only lead to greater racial disparities,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director of the state chapter.

Decriminalization has gained traction in the commonwealth since Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring voiced their support. Northam’s criminal justice reform included a proposal to clear the records of individuals previously convicted of simple marijuana possession.

According to the state attorney general’s office, arrests for marijuana possession have increased from 9,000 in 1999 to 29,000 in 2018, with marijuana criminal enforcement costing the commonwealth over $81 million every year.

Attorney General Mark Herring believes that passing decriminalization bills is an important first step to moving Virginia toward legalized and regulated use.

“We must keep going because the work is not done,” the attorney general said in a statement after the bills advanced. “For too long, Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records but with these votes that is finally coming to an end.”