Starting today, Virginia residents will get their first taste of much-needed cannabis reform.
Thanks to a law passed by the state legislature in March and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in May, Virginia has become the 27th state to enact marijuana decriminalization. The new law effectively moves Virginia into the status of a legal medical marijuana state, increasing the national total to 35.
Possession of up to one ounce of marijuana is now a civil offense, punishable only by a $25 fine.
Possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in Virginia is now considered a civil offense, punishable only by a $25 fine.
The new law immediately seals misdemeanor marijuana possession records from employers and school administrators. It additionally redefines substances previously considered hashish as marijuana.
While the new law is a significant step, decriminalization comes nowhere close to providing the freedom and security of full legalization, and is just the first step in a longer process towards substantial change.
“Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML (as well as NORML’s national development director) said in a press statement earlier this week, “and the enactment of this legislation turns that public opinion into public policy.”
Medical marijuana dispensaries coming soon
While the decriminalization bill—which requires the creation of a working group to assess the potential impact of legalization on the state—hints at further reform, another big change is imminent: Four years after it was approved by legislators, the state’s long-hindered medical marijuana program is finally getting underway.
While the state’s first five producer-pharmacies had already been approved to open later this year, lawmakers recently signed off on 25 more. Legislators also removed the restriction banning products that contain more than 5% THC. Patients will now be able to purchase doses of cannabis with up to 10 mg of THC in virtually any form except flower.
A patient can receive a recommendation from a licensed practitioner. Virginia will not require patients to demonstrate any specific qualifying conditions—the only requirement is that a physician agrees that medical marijuana is a suitable treatment.
Reform was sorely needed
Decriminalization was long overdue in Virginia, where marijuana arrest rates have soared in recent years. In 2018, for instance, roughly 29,000 Virginians were arrested on marijuana charges; that number nearly tripled since 1999.
People of color comprise a disproportionate amount of those arrests. According to the ACLU’s 2020 report “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” black Virginians are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white peers.
Those arrests resulted in draconian consequences: first-time possession offenders faced up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine, to say nothing of a permanent stain on their criminal record. Get caught with pot again? You faced up to one year in prison.
“Marijuana arrests are now at their highest level in at least two decades and maybe ever,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said last year, “meaning that even more Virginians, especially young people and people of color, are being saddled with criminal records that can drastically affect their lives.”
An imperfect law, but something to build on
While proponents of the decriminalization law are optimistic that it will lead to fewer arrests, other activists are wary that racially-motivated harassment will persist. The Virginia decriminalization law, for instance, does not prevent police officers from using the smell of marijuana as justification to stop and search a vehicle or person.
“We know that civil penalties do not end racist pretextual stops by the police,” Ashna Khanna, the Legislative Director of ACLU Virginia, told Virginia Public Radio earlier this week.
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“Until it’s legalized, I don’t think we can constrain law enforcement on their observations until we legalize it,” added Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (no relation) in the same interview.
Prospects for full legalization
The onus is now on Virginia lawmakers to fight for additional reform and full legalization. Activists should take heart, however, in two recent developments. The new decriminalization law also creates a working group to assess the potential impact of adult-use legalization in Virginia and make recommendations by November 30, 2020. Last week, members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus announced their intention to introduce legislation to legalize cannabis during a special session set for this coming August.
'Decriminalization is long overdue. But legalization is necessary to reduce police-civilian interactions and remove the pretext for countless police stops.'
“While we applaud Governor Northam, his administration, and the legislature for taking this important first step [of decriminalization], it’s critical the legislature work swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults,” Pedini, of Virginia NORML, said in her recent press release.
“For too long, young people, poor people, and people of color have disproportionately been impacted by cannabis criminalization, and lawmakers must take immediate steps to right these past wrongs and to undo the damage that prohibition has waged upon hundreds of thousands of Virginians.”
Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, acknowledged that decriminalizing cannabis “will save thousands of Virginians from the trauma of arrest and the stigma of a criminal conviction.”
“However,” Hawkins added, “Virginia lawmakers should continue to work towards broader cannabis policy reform. As the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has recognized, full legalization is needed. While decriminalization is long overdue, legalization is necessary to dramatically reduce police-civilian interactions and remove the pretext for countless police stops.”