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Virginia lawmakers vote to decriminalize marijuana, set $25 civil penalty for possession

Virginia House and Senate pass similar bills decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.
Virginia House and Senate pass similar bills decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.(wwbt/nbc12)
Updated: Mar. 8, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Possession of small amounts of marijuana will no longer be punishable by jail time in Virginia under decriminalization legislation lawmakers sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday.

“This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the Senate.

Similar to a traffic ticket

Under the legislation lawmakers passed, the drug will remain illegal, but violations of the law will be treated like minor traffic violations. The bill sets a $25 civil fine for possession of up to an ounce of the plant or products derived from it, including hash and oil concentrates. The legislation also seals records of past and future convictions and prohibits employers and educational institutes from inquiring about violations, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies.

Currently, possession of a half-ounce or less is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of hash and other concentrates is punished as a felony. And while hefty fines and driver’s license suspensions are more common in practice than jail time, a point-in-time count in July 2017 found 127 people were being held in jail solely on a marijuana charge, according to a State Crime Commission report.

The decriminalization bill won bipartisan support in both chambers, passing the House on a 56-36 vote and the Senate 27-12.

If Gov. Ralph Northam, who has endorsed an earlier iteration of the legislation, agrees to the final bill, it will go into effect July 1, making Virginia the 26th state to either decriminalize the drug or legalize recreational adult use.

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