By Dai Já Norman
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginians convicted of marijuana possession would no longer automatically lose their driver's license for six months under legislation moving through the General Assembly.
Existing state law mandates that when someone is convicted of a drug offense, the defendant's license is suspended for six months. Under bills approved by the Senate and by a House subcommittee, that provision would no longer apply to adults convicted of simple possession of marijuana on a first offense.
On Thursday, the Senate passed its version of the legislation – SB 1091, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria and Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County. The vote was 38 to 2.
That came one day after an identical proposal – HB 2051, introduced by Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham – cleared a subcommittee in the House. The Criminal Law Subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously in support of Adams' bill.
Juveniles convicted of marijuana possession still would be subject to license suspension under the legislation. The bills would leave it up to the judge's discretion to suspend the driver's license of adult defendants.
Many people consider Virginia's penalties for marijuana possession severe. A first offense for possession of less than a half ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, plus a six-month suspension of the individual's license to drive a motor vehicle.
A first offender may receive a deferred disposition and dismissal of the charge upon completion of probation and community service. But such defendants still lose their driver's licenses for six months.
During the Senate debate, Ebbin said that each year, about 39,000 Virginians lose their driver's licenses because of drug offenses. Most states, including the ones bordering Virginia, don't automatically suspend the licenses of such defendants, he said.
Stanley said that as an attorney, he has seen young people hurt by the state's policy of suspending their driver's licenses. Stanley said the policy stemmed from the "war on drugs" in the 1980s.
"What we're trying to do with this very good statute is give someone the opportunity of a second chance for making a dumb mistake," Stanley said.
Similar arguments were made at the House Criminal Law Subcommittee meeting. The panel heard from Ryan Johnson, a Virginia Tech alumnus who was charged with possession of marijuana in college.
"I automatically had my driver's license suspended for six months, and that was what surprised me the most," Johnson told legislators. "I said to myself, 'Why is my license being suspended for something that didn't involve a car or driving? And how am I supposed to get to school and work?'"
Johnson said the license suspension was the most disruptive part of his sentencing.
HB 2051 and SB 1091 would be contingent upon written assurance from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Virginia will not lose any federal funds for easing its policy on the suspension of driver's licenses for people convicted of marijuana possession.
Also on Tuesday, after more than 15 minutes of debate, the Senate passed a bill to allow people with documentation from a doctor to carry cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil – products extracted from cannabis. Without such documentation, people who have such substances can be charged with possession of marijuana.
Currently, only Virginians with intractable epilepsy have permission to possess the oils.
SB 1298, sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, would expand the list to include cancer, glaucoma, human immunodeficiency virus, AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.
Senators voted 29-11 in favor of the bill. Vogel said CBD oil has been "remarkable and transformative" for patients with epilepsy. She said her measure would allow people with other diseases to benefit from the treatment.
Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, said he fears legislation like this is a step toward legalization of marijuana. "Proceeding down this route takes us in that direction," Black said.
Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, disagreed. "We're not going to become a nation of potheads because people with MS and a variety of other ailments are using this type of oil," he said.