On Thursday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed into law two bills that effectively decriminalize marijuana possession throughout the state. The new legislation brings Virginia into the company of 26 other U.S. states and Washington, D.C. to cease prosecution for marijuana possession. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, Virginia’s new law includes the lowest fine of any decriminalization policy in the country.
The current law subjects Virginians and visitors to a fine of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 30 days for a first-time marijuana possession offense. A second charge would fall under a Class 1 misdemeanor, which could result in as much as 12 months of jail time and upwards of a $2,500 fine.
The two bills approved by Gov. Northam, SB 2 and HB 972, go into effect on July 1 and update the current measures to impose a mere $25 civil penalty and no jail sentence for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. In addition, possession of low amounts of marijuana will no longer appear on an individual’s criminal record nor will it be reported to Virginia’s Central Criminal Records Exchange, which was established in 1966 by the Virginia General Assembly. Employers and educational facilities would also be prohibited from inquiring about one’s charges or convictions regarding marijuana possession.
Under the new law, if a marijuana offense occurs while an individual is driving, that offense would be reported to Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles and would appear on the driver’s permanent record.
This means decriminalizing marijuana possession—and clearing the records of people who’ve gotten in trouble for it. It means making permanent the temporary policy passed last year—the one that says no more suspended driver's licenses, just because you owe court fines. #SOTC— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) January 9, 2020
Finally, the legislation also sets the framework to organize a study group in order to report how marijuana legalization affects the various aspects of the Virginia population and economy to the state’s General Assembly by November 2021.
As we decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and seal the records of prior convictions, I am proposing a study to assess the impact of fully legalizing marijuana in the Commonwealth.— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) April 12, 2020
“NORML is proud to have worked alongside Senator Ebbin and Delegate Herring, both longtime champions of evidence-based cannabis policy,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML development director and executive director of Virginia NORML. “This victory comes after many years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its membership. And while we applaud Governor Northam, his administration, and the legislature for taking this step, it’s critical that they work swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults and begin undoing the damages prohibition has waged on tens of thousands of Virginians.”
“This is a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia. The prohibition on marijuana has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year,” said Senator Adam Ebbin. “It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights.”