On Sunday, Governor Ralph Northam (D) of Virginia approved HB 972, a bill that would decriminalize marijuana throughout the commonwealth and eradicate prison and jail time for simple possession of cannabis. Prior to the Democratic majority legislature going into effect, Gov. Northam expressed that the decriminalization of marijuana was among his top priorities.
Under the newly passed bill, a civil penalty of $25 will replace criminal charges for simple marijuana possession. The law also establishes a group dedicated to studying and reporting the impact of cannabis legalization.
Attorney General Mark Herring believes that decriminalizing cannabis will help the commonwealth become “a more fair, just, and equal place.”
“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,” said Herring in a statement.
And just like that we're one step closer to decriminalization. But we can't stop there. We need full legalization in Virginia https://t.co/T28WFcncut— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) April 12, 2020
The bill was passed in bipartisan fashion, but received both skepticism and support from lawmakers and advocacy groups.
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
“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and Governor Northam’s signature turns that public opinion into public policy,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, Development Director for NORML.
Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson pushed back, calling the bill “a horrible idea.”
“There's impairment when you drive a motor vehicle after you smoke marijuana,” Hutcheson said. “Currently, in law enforcement, we don't have any way at the roadside level to measure that.”
Hutcheson added that he believes that the data on those with criminal charges for cannabis possession is inaccurate.
“It's really a myth. You hear people say that a lot of people are incarcerated for simple possession of marijuana and that's not true,” he said. “A misdemeanor marijuana possession, you don't get locked up for it. Here at our facility today, we have zero people that are incarcerated for that. It's a misconception that costs of incarceration are increasing due to that.”
Todd Gilbert, Republican House Minority Leader, mentioned that he thinks cannabis legalization and decriminalization hasn’t come without its cons in other states.
“We see that other states have done varying degrees of changes in their marijuana policy, and I think in those states, we’ve seen varying degrees of success and unintended consequences and problems that have arisen," said Gilbert.
In addition to approving the bill to decriminalize marijuana, Gov. Northam signed SB 1015 into effect.
The new law ensures that an individual “who possesses marijuana in the form of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil pursuant to a valid written certification issued by a practitioner in the course of his professional practice shall not be prosecuted for simple possession of marijuana.”
(I would have gone with “‘his/her’ or ‘their’ professional practice,” but that’s just me.)
Current Virginia law states that marijuana possession in the form of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil in such circumstances is “an affirmative defense to such charges.”
"As legislators became more comfortable with medical cannabis products, they recognized that patients and legal guardians of children and incapacitated adults need the protections of lawful possession instead of the affirmative defense. That is what SB 1015 provides — a statutory protection against prosecution, not merely an affirmative defense,” said Democratic Senator David W. Marsden.