Virginia Governor Approves Cannabis Decriminalization Bill

Virginia lawmakers in March passed bipartisan legislation to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of cannabis and reduce penalties.

The pieces of legislation, SB 2 and companion bill HB 972, create a rebuttable presumption that a person who possesses no more than an ounce of cannabis possesses it for personal use.

According to the text, hashish oil is included in the definition of marijuana.

Possession of up to an ounce of cannabis would be met with a civil penalty of no more than $25 under the bill, as opposed to current law which imposes a maximum 30-day jail sentence and $500 fine limit for a first offense, and Class 1 misdemeanor penalties for subsequent offenses.

On Sunday, April 12, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced via Twitter that he had approved the legislation as well as additional criminal justice reform.

“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,” says Governor Northam. “I thank the General Assembly for working with us to build a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”

Attorney General Mark Herring says that the state’s previous approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, primarily people of color, with criminal records for too long.

“It’s a new day in the Commonwealth,” says Herring. “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.”

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office says that the number of cannabis convictions in the state rose 53 percent from 6,533 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2017, and arrests for possession increased 220 percent from 9,000 in 1999 to approximately 29,000 in 2018.

Estimates put the annual cost of cannabis enforcement in excess of $81 million.

“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and Governor Northam’s signature turns that public opinion into public policy,” says NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini.

In addition to decriminalizing cannabis and reducing penalties, the new law also allows people who have had civil offenses dismissed, taken nolle prosequi, or have been acquitted to file a petition to have the charges expunged from police and court records.

The law also requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security to study the impact of commercialized cannabis legalization on the Commonwealth and report findings to the General Assembly and the governor by November 30, 2020.