Written by Rita Thompson
Earlier this spring (May 21st, 2020), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation to decriminalize cannabis possession and reduce penalties for offenses involving personal possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis.
The law officially went into effect as of July 1st, 2020. That makes Virginia the 27th state to enact policy change, making cannabis possession punishable by a maximum $25 fine with no arrest and no criminal record.
Lawmakers Push Back Against Delays
After the initial signing of the bill, Gov. Northam suggested a series of revisions to the legislation, which would have resulted in a full-year delay in the decriminalization process.
I have signed bold new laws to reform criminal justice in Virginia, including measures to raise the felony larceny threshold, permanently eliminate driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court fines and fees, raise the age of juvenile transfer to adult court, and reform parole.
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) April 12, 2020
Lawmakers, however, rejected the proposed push-back from the governor, as well as a recommendation that would’ve eliminated a defendant’s ability to request a jury trial after being cited for cannabis possession.
NORML Fights for Reform
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a non-profit fighting for cannabis reform, worked alongside Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-VA, and Delegate Charniele L. Herring, D-VA, to accept a total of 15 other amendments recommended by the governor.
“NORML is proud to have worked alongside Sen. Ebbin and Delegate Herring, both longtime champions of evidence-based cannabis policy, to bring about these needed changes to Virginia law,” explained Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director and executive director of Virginia NORML.
“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and the enactment of this legislation turns that public opinion into public policy,” Pedini added.
Is Decriminalization Enough?
In 2018, cannabis-related arrests in Virginia reached their highest level in at least 20 years, accounting for nearly 29,000 of the state’s total arrests, reports The Washington Post.
Gov. Northam signed two bills: Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972, defining cannabis to include hashish oil and creating a “rebuttable presumption that a person who possesses no more than 1 ounce of marijuana possesses it for personal use.”
Prior to the change, cannabis possession offenses of as little as half an ounce were classified as criminal misdemeanors in Virginia, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a criminal record, and possible loss of driving privileges.
While Pedini believes decriminalization is a step in the right direction and is likely to reduce arrest rates, she is striving for more reform.
“Decriminalization is a victory worth celebrating, but as we have said repeatedly, it is not a public policy solution for marijuana prohibition,” she explained to Marijuana Moment.
“While decriminalization will reduce arrests by about half, it will not address the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws,” Pedini added. “It is imperative the Commonwealth works swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible adult-use of cannabis and begin undoing the damage done by prohibition.”