In recent years, when a state is not prepared to pass legislation that would legalize cannabis, they take what they consider to be the “safer” road – decriminalization. Virginia lawmakers are now the most recent to consider legalizing cannabis for adult use, only to end up passing a decriminalization bill instead.
However, this is a huge step forward for a formerly very conservative state. The bill was passed – along with numerous others – at the last minute before the end of the legislative session, sending it off to be signed by Governor Ralph Northam, after which it would go into effect on July 1st of this year.
“This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the Senate.
Currently, the penalty for possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana in the state of Virginia is 30 days in jail, in addition to a $500 fine. If this bill is signed into law, that fine would be significantly reduced from $500 to only $25 dollars for possession of up to an ounce on the first offense. It would also remove the jail time entirely, instead giving people a civil citation, or the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
The bill to decriminalize won support from both the House of Delegates and the Senate with a vote of 56-36 in the House and 27-12 in the Senate. Governor Northam has already endorsed an earlier version of the bill, meaning there is nothing that should stand in the way of this legislation becoming law.
“This is an enormous victory for Virginians, a super majority of whom have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of marijuana possession,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws.
Along with decriminalization, the bill also allows both past and future convictions related to small possession to be sealed – and prohibits employers and educational institutes from inquiring about violations. (The exception to this being law enforcement agencies, of course.) A separate bill was also passed that commissions a study of full legalization, suggesting the state is prepared to start working on such legislation but want all their bases covered first
This was still a positive move for Virginia, which has been run by Republicans and very conservative on legalization efforts in the past years. Hopefully, this is only a first step, and the commissioning of the legalization study will ensure that in the next few years Virginians might still see legal cannabis in their state.