Virginia Governor approves bill for decriminalization, expands patient access to medical cannabis

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

The legal cannabis landscape in Virginia has changed drastically this year, with the two most-recent bills to gain approval from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam being Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972. Thanks to the new law, penalties will be reduced to $25 for offenses involving the possession of a maximum one ounce of cannabis; the offense will be classified as a civil violation and will not incur a criminal record or arrest. The new law will be effectuated on July 1, 2020, but not before the legislature approves technical amendments suggested by Virginia’s governor.

Based on data gleaned from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, first or second cannabis possession offenses amounted to 15,000 between July 2018 and June 2019. At the current time, individuals are charged with a criminal misdemeanor if they commit minor cannabis possession offenses in Virginia; the maximum fine for first-time offenders is $500 and/or a maximum 30-day stint behind bars. Subsequent offenses are classified as a Class 1 misdemeanor; punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,500.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of each bill:

Senate Bill 2 

This bill focused on the decriminalization of simple cannabis possession, with a civil penalty not exceeding $50. Only individuals who commit a criminal violation or juvenile-committed civil violation will have their driver’s license suspended and be forced to undergo substance abuse-screening. In addition to this, the bill defines cannabis to include hashish oil. 

Legal language contained in Senate Bill 2 states that the cannabis distribution/possession threshold will be raised to one ounce; previously, one-half ounce would have been subject to an offense. Moreover, the bill enables petitions for expungement of conviction and adjournment for cannabis possession in cases whereby fines, court costs and orders of restitution have been paid fully. 

Technical amendments are included in Senate Bill 2.

House Bill 972

A reduced civil penalty of $25 is outlined in the House version of Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization bill House Bill 972. Individuals who violate simple cannabis possession rules will not incur court costs and instead, will be charged by a summons. Additionally, individuals who are caught in possession of the plant in small amounts will not have their criminal history record tarnished with charges and/or judgement for said violations; the incident will not be reported to the Central Criminal Records Exchange. 

This bill also states that the suspended sentence/substance abuse screening provisions/driver’s license suspension provisions are only applicable in cases of criminal violations or to civil violations by a juvenile. The definition of “marijuana” in HB 972 includes hashish oil and anyone caught in possession of more than half an ounce of the plant in whatever form will be relieved of punishment; a rebuttable presumption has been created that labels this type of possession as “personal consumption.”

As per the details of Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization bill, the legal framework is as follows:

“(i) makes records relating to the arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of possession of marijuana not open to public inspection and disclosure, except in certain circumstances; (ii) prohibits employers and educational institutions from requiring an applicant for employment or admission to disclose information related to such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction; and (iii) prohibits agencies, officials, and employees of the state and local governments from requiring an applicant for a license, permit, registration, or governmental service to disclose information concerning such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction.”

Lawmakers say this is a major time for cannabis reform in Virginia 

Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30) and House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring (D-46) led the bipartisan, bicameral initiative to change cannabis possession penalties in Virginia. Ebbin has been serving as the Senator from the 30th District of the Virginia Senate since January 2012, while Herring has served in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2009.

The lawmakers were motivated to push for the amendments after years of Virginians opposing the criminalization of personal cannabis possession. Now, the general public are being heard and thanks to Governor Northam’s signature public opinion has officially become public policy.

“This is a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia. The prohibition on [cannabis] has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year. It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights,” Sen. Ebbin said after the bill’s culminating passing, adding that New Jersey’s cannabis decriminalization bill “is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.” 

Now that Virginia’s cannabis decriminalization bill has been given approval by Gov. Northam, a joint effort between the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security must be set in motion to organize a group of researchers. Those researchers will investigate the prospective repercussions that legal cannabis sales and personal consumption will have on the Commonwealth. Recommendations must be sent to the Governor and General Assembly no later than November 1, 2021.