By SaraRose Martin
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginia won’t be pulling a Colorado by decriminalizing marijuana this year. But the state might relax its penalties for possessing marijuana and its rules on who can use marijuana products for medical reasons.
Legislators this session introduced more than a dozen marijuana-related proposals. A Senate committee last week killed two bills to decriminalize the substance, and a House bill likely will die this week.
However, lawmakers seem amenable to making marijuana products more available for medical purposes and to being more lenient with Virginians convicted of simple possession of marijuana. Still, those bills have drawn opposition from certain legislators, highlighting a cultural divide within the General Assembly.
That divide was evident in the debate last week over a bill allowing Virginians with cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and several other illnesses to use cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil, which are extracted from marijuana. Under current law, only people with intractable epilepsy can use the oils.
Cannabidiol oil and THC-A are non-psychoactive: They cannot be smoked or get users high. Even so, SB 1298 sparked debate; 11 of the 40 senators voted against it.
Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, recalled returning from serving in the Marines in Vietnam in the 1960s.
“Pot was the biggest thing, and we had just simply had a collapse of good order and discipline,” Black told his Senate colleagues. “I know where we’re headed; I can see a slippery slope. I do not want to see this country go back where it was in the ’60s and the ’70s because believe me it was not pretty. It was the worst of all times I have lived through.”
SB 1298 was sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester. She acknowledged there has been opposition to adding a dozen diseases to the list of ailments that qualify for a marijuana-extract oil. But making the treatment available to people with severe diseases doesn’t impose a public safety risk, Vogel said.
“Not only does it lack side effects but it also has really healing properties. There has been some quibbling over the breadth of the list. But if you have someone in your family with a debilitating genetic disorder or is dying a painful death from one of these diseases, which one are you going to pick?” Vogel said.
Three other bills before the General Assembly seek to expand medical uses of marijuana. The most expansive is HB 2135, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. It would allow a physician to recommend and a pharmacist to distribute marijuana or THC for treatment of any medical condition. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
The other bills are more limited. HB 1637, by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, would let people with Crohn’s disease use cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil. And SB 1452, by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would do the same for people with cancer. Davis’ bill is before a committee. The Senate is voting on Lucas’ measure this week.
Legislators also filed three bills that sought to decriminalize possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana. Currently, that offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail; defendants also lose their driver’s license for six months.
Under bills filed by Lucas (SB 908) and Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth (HB 1906), simple possession of marijuana would draw a civil penalty up to $250 for a first violation. Under SB 1269 by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, a first offender would face a civil fine of no more than $100.
Last week, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously to kill Ebbin’s and Lucas’ bills. The corresponding committee in the House has yet to hold a hearing on Heretick’s bill.
It’s safe to say that Virginia won’t be joining Colorado and seven other states, as well as Washington, D.C., in legalizing recreational marijuana. But it’s likely the General Assembly will lessen the penalties associated with simple marijuana possession.
The Senate already has passed one bill to do that: SB 1091, sponsored by Ebbin. Under the measure, the state would no longer automatically suspend the driver’s license of an adult convicted of marijuana possession. The bill, which the Senate passed 38-2 last week, says juveniles still would be subject to a six-month suspension of their driver’s license.
Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham, is carrying a companion bill (HB 2051) in the House. The House Courts of Justice Committee unanimously approved the bill last week and sent it to the full House of Delegates for consideration.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.