Virginia has officially joined the ranks of progressive states that have elected to decriminalize the personal possession of cannabis. Approved by lawmakers in March, Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed the bill (HB 972) into law on Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Until now, a person caught with marijuana in Virginia could face up to 30-days in jail and a fine of up to $500. With the new rules, however, simple possession is treated more like a vehicle moving violation and served in the form of a written citation, just like traffic tickets.
The maximum fine is currently set at only $25, and previously associated court costs are also eliminated with the new process.
What amount of marijuana is legal to possess?
One ounce is the maximum amount deemed to qualify as being for personal use without the intent to distribute. It remains illegal to possess more than one ounce, however, and being caught using or selling any amount of marijuana still remains punishable by law.
The law is written to apply to cannabis concentrates, in the form of “hashish oil,” as well as dried flowers.
What happens to criminal records?
Those who were previously arrested for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis, in Virginia, will no longer have those arrests appear on their criminal record under the new legislation. This is also good news for job seekers and prospective students as employers and educational institutions can no longer ask an applicant to divulge such information either.
Future personal possession citations will no longer be reported to the Central Criminal Records Exchange. These judgements are expected to allow law enforcement officers to spend more time focusing on serious crimes.
After signing the bill into law, Gov. Northam said, “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance.”
More than just decriminalizing personal possession, the new legislation also dictates that a task force be formed to explore the possible effects of full marijuana legalization in the state of Virginia, including what the regulation of a recreational retail market could look like.
The committee will be made up of representatives from the departments of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security. Results of the study are to be presented to the state government by November 30 of this year.
More Than Just Decriminalization
Policy reform under the new law addresses more than just marijuana possession. HB 972 also effectively reforms parole for released prisoners, removes the punishment of suspending a person’s driver’s license because of unpaid tickets, and increases the grand larceny threshold.
Gov. Northam, who has been up front about his support for decriminalization and criminal justice policy reform since January, said in a statement, “Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system.”
“Virginia’s old laws often led to too many black and brown people getting harsher punishments than the majority of Virginians,” said Senator Louise Lucas. “I appreciate Governor Northam signing these new laws that will help bring equity to our criminal justice system.”
House Bill 972 was written by combining aspects from HB 265, HB 301, and HB 48. Unlike in 2014, when a previous attempt to decriminalize possession in Virginia was denied, the approval of this legislation demonstrates that reform finally has support from the majority of Virginia lawmakers. The Senate also passed identical legislation (SB 2) earlier this year.
This shift leaves many Virginians hopeful that lawmakers may one day be open to legalizing the recreational use and sale of cannabis in the Old Dominion.