Virginia has just become the most recent state to decriminalize cannabis. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed HB 972 on Sunday, April 12, just months after promising to do so once in office.
“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 Northam in a press release. “With this legislation, we are moving Virginia forward to an even more fair, just, and equal place. This year, we showed that smart, progressive reform is possible here in the Commonwealth and we must continue on that path.
While this is a huge step for the residents of Virginia, it doesn’t mean cannabis is legalized. This decision actually means the possession of cannabis will be charged at a civil level, rather than a criminal level. In other words, the possession of an ounce of less will result in a $25 fine, instead of jail time.
The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2020. Previously, the penalty for possession of cannabis was a $500 fine or 30 days in jail. Additionally, Virginians will not receive a criminal record if charged for possession of cannabis. As a result of minimizing this penalty, the prison system within Virginia will hopefully slowly start to improve.
“These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance,” Northam said.
As mentioned, nothing other than the penalty reduction will be different for Virginians, in terms of cannabis laws. It is still illegal to possess, distribute, sell, buy or use cannabis within the state, unless for medicinal purposes. The possession of over an ounce of cannabis will result in a criminal offense.
This isn’t the first time Governor Northam has stepped in to introduce new measures to Virginia related to cannabis. Northam has also formally legalized medical marijuana in the state, expanded cannabis access to out-of-state patients, and signed a bill that would prevent residents from being denied federal assistance due to drug-related convictions.
Long Past Due
Governor Northam made it clear during his election this was something he was going to accomplish. Thankfully for the residents of Virginia, Northam kept his promise. This is the first step of many in terms of progress, but some believe this compromise is long past due, and not enough.
“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, executive director of the Virginia NORML.
The first problem that arises from this bill is the inability to prevent racism within the judicial system. Police can still stop anyone for probable cause if they smell cannabis. It also doesn’t stop police from targeting minorities for these minor crimes. Another belief from many is that this policy should have been implemented years ago. As a result, the judicial system has created an abundance of criminal records.
“Our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records for long enough,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “It’s a new day for the Commonwealth.”