The governor of Virginia announced on Sunday that he approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in the state.
The legislation, which would make possessing up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record, was passed by the legislature and transmitted to the governor’s desk in March.
Prior Virginia law made simple possession punishable by a maximum $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) approved the legislation—SB 2 and HB 972—with no public signing ceremony amid the coronavirus outbreak, but he’s consistently expressed support for decriminalization and included a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address in January.
“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and Governor Northam’s signature turns that public opinion into public policy,” NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of the state affiliate, Virginia NORML.
Though reform advocates are pushing for broader reform, many view this development as a necessary step that could set the stage for cannabis legalization to pass some time over the next few legislative sessions. A provision that requires the formation of a working group to study the policy change was also part of the bill, and insiders say that’s important because the legislature historically prefers such studies before enacting major legislation.
Northam proposed the legislature make one amendment to the decriminalization legislation, however, pushing back the due date of the legalization study from November 30 of this year to November 30, 2021.
As such, there is one more step that the bill has to go through before it’s technically enacted. Lawmakers are set to reconvene on April 22 to consider the governor’s recommended changes to this and other legislation. If Northam’s amendment is adopted without changes, the bill will be formally enacted without needing his signature. Otherwise, it will come back to his desk for action.
Not all advocates are on board with the decriminalization bill, however. ACLU Virginia has opposed the measure, arguing that the status quo is superior to incremental reform.
The chapter sent a letter to the governor last month, requesting that he recommend a series of large-scale amendments to the bill before signing it. The prospects of that happening were unlikely given that legislators already rejected the proposals during consideration of the bill, including a measure to remove certain penalties against juveniles caught possessing marijuana. Ultimately the group’s requests did not materialize.
Virginia NORML, meanwhile, requested that the governor asked lawmakers to add an emergency clause to the bill that would make its provisions effective immediately. That didn’t happen either, however, and so, for now, it’s expected to take effect on July 1, as written in the text as sent to Northam’s desk.
The governor also signed several other cannabis-related bills in recent days. He gave his signature to legislation formally legalizing medical marijuana in the state (rather than simply offering patients an affirmative defense as under prior law), expanding access to medical cannabis for out-of-state patients temporarily residing in Virginia and requiring the formation of a separate working group to study the state’s medical marijuana program and issue recommendations, including the possibility of expanding the system and allowing flower rather than oil alone.
Last month, he also signed bills that would prevent people from being denied federal assistance over drug-related convictions and eliminate a requirement stipulating that school officials must report misdemeanor offenses, including those marijuana-related, to law enforcement.
A resolution directing the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study and issue recommendations on adult-use cannabis legalization was also approved by the legislature in March and does not require any action on the governor’s part to take effect.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, previously said that he’s confident Northam will ultimately embrace more comprehensive reform. He organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana and said that testimony given there should provide Northam with more evidence to support adult-use legalization.
“Our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records for long enough. It’s a new day in the Commonwealth,” Herring said in a press release. “Decriminalization is an incredibly important first step and one that many thought we may never see in Virginia, but we cannot stop until we have legal and regulated adult use. With this legislation, we are moving Virginia forward to an even more fair, just, and equal place. This year, we showed that smart, progressive reform is possible here in the Commonwealth and we must continue on that path.
With the enactment of the more modest bill on Saturday, however, Virginia has become 27th state to decriminalize marijuana and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
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