Virginia lawmakers give go-ahead for commencement of cannabis study, decriminalization

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Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

When the 2020 legislative session kicked off in Virginia, the outlook for cannabis reform seemed fairly optimistic; pro-pot advocates felt hopeful about the agenda of Democratic lawmakers. Things started off smoothly, with a number of Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization bills gaining approval.

Among many things, the Senate approved a study that would investigate the way(s) in which state lawmakers could – by July 1, 2022 – legalize cannabis in Virginia and provide regulation for the market; oversight would focus on the plant’s sale, cultivation and possession.

However, the chances of cannabis legalization being enacted in Virginia this year are slim. Despite the fact that lawmakers don’t feel prepared to legalize cannabis just yet, bills to decriminalize cannabis in Virginia have progressed further than ever before. Moreover, a variety of cannabis-related proposals will advance to next year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers decriminalize simple possession of cannabis in Virginia

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) introduced House Bill 972, which would decriminalize minor cases of cannabis possession. HB 972 will spare those caught from being slapped with a criminal charge or locked up in a jail cell. Instead, anyone caught red-handed – or should we say “green-handed” – will be required to pay a maximum fine of $25; at the current time, anyone caught in possession of cannabis in Virginia faces a $500 fine and 30-day vacation behind bars.

In addition to the aforementioned rule updates for cannabis possession in Virginia, HB 972 rules that juveniles must be stripped of their driving privileges and undergo substance abuse screening; in the event that they are found to be illegally carrying cannabis on their person. Those in opposition of the bill feel that it unfairly targets juveniles, as opposed to adult cannabis consumers in Virginia.

Regardless, the woman behind this bill feels confident that the passing of Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization measure will pave the way for a regulated legal market to blossom. She does not, however, intend on the state’s newly-approved cannabis decriminalization bill resolving issues pertaining to racial disparity. On the other hand, Herring is hopeful that HB 972 will safeguard low-level offenders.

“We must keep going because the work is not done,” the attorney general said in a statement after the bills advanced. “For too long, Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records but with these votes that is finally coming to an end.”
“This is an important step in improving the criminal justice system,” she added. “While [cannabis] arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased.”

Data published by the state attorney general’s office has confirmed what Herring claims; arrests for cannabis possession in Virginia have soared from 9,000 in 1999 to 29,000 in 2018. The rise in cannabis-related arrests is draining the commonwealth more than $81 million on an annual basis.

Herring’s bill comprises various decriminalization and possession measures

During the third reading of Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization bill – which attracted Republican support and passed with a vote of 64-34 in the House of Delegates – Herring said that legalization would “not be good” right now. Then again, she feels that the bill’s passing “hopefully would take us one step closer to reducing the arrest and jailing of people for simple possession.”

Another of Virginia’s cannabis bills to gain approval during the 2020 legislative session was Senate Bill 2, which was introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin(D-Alexandria). Based on the language contained in this bill, simple possession of cannabis in Virginia will be decriminalized; punishment would not exceed five hours of community service and fines would be capped at $50.

SB 1015 also gained approval; now, it awaits review in a House committee. This bill was sponsored by Sen. David Marsden (D-Fairfax) and it would grant patients who possess a CBD (cannabidiol) oil prescription to steer clear of possession charges.

Numerous measures focused in cannabis in Virginia were carried to the 2021 session

Advocates were disappointed that some of Virginia’s cannabis bills didn’t gain recognition during this year’s legislative session. Chelsea Higgs Wise, who assumes the role of co-founder and executive director for Marijuana Justice, told reporters that the General assembly has sacrificed opportunities by dismissing the following measures for cannabis reform in Virginia:

  • HB 1507 – Initiated by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D – Prince William), this bill would have made it unlawful to possess controlled substances; not including cannabis-based substances. Prescription-holders would have been exempt from the rule.
  • HB 87 – Also carried forward to next year’s legislative session was this bill, which focused on the legalization of simple cannabis possession and penalties in Virginia.
  • HB 269 – Had this bill been advanced by Virginia State Legislature this year, cannabis possession penalties among consumers aged 21 and over would have been banished. Moreover, HB 269 would have decriminalized cannabis sale, possession and consumption among consumers below the age of 21, as well as regulate cannabis retail sales.
  • HB 267 – If lawmakers had advanced this cannabis bill in Virginia, individuals who’ve been charged with a weed-related offence would benefit from their police and court records being wiped clean.
  • HB 32 – Police and court records would have also been expunged with this bill. However, the difference between HB 32 and HB 267 is that this one focuses on misdemeanor and nonviolent felony convictions.
  • SB 306 – Criminal history information relating to cannabis charges and convictions would have been completely destroyed by this bill.

In total, 14 bills were victorious; six will be taken up by the Virginia General Assembly at the same time next year; six were incorporated into other similar bills; four were defeated; one was not heard by the committee; one awaits reconciliation of a final version for approval by a committee of Senate and House members; none of Virginia’s cannabis bills were withdrawn.