Gov. Northam signs bill to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia

The laws governing Virginia’s soon-to-launch medical marijuana program are once again getting a...
The laws governing Virginia’s soon-to-launch medical marijuana program are once again getting a little looser.(Pixabay)
Updated: May. 25, 2020 at 6:35 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) - Last week, Governor Ralph Northam officially signed Virginia’s biennial budget, as well as eight other bills from the General Assembly for which he had requested amendments in the General Assembly’s reconvened April 22 session.

Among the bills formally signed was a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the commonwealth.

The governor had recommended that lawmakers amend HB 972 to extend Virginia’s study on the legalization of marijuana and not allow a trial by jury for the civil penalty of simple possession. But those proposed amendments were rejected by the General Assembly in their socially distanced April session.

So the law that will go into effect is the one originally passed, which scraps criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. It also creates a workgroup to study the impact of legalization of marijuana and eventually release a report on the matter – though that study will be shorter than Northam wanted.

Lawmakers this year killed bills that could have legalized the drug, opting for decriminalization as a slower step forward.

Supporters have argued the measure is needed, in part, because African Americans are disproportionately charged with drug crimes.

“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,” Attorney General Mark Herring Herring said in a statement earlier this year.

The new law, which takes effect July 1 despite the rejected amendments, reduces penalties for offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a civil violation, which means no arrest and no criminal record.

Current laws set fines up to $500, with possible jail time, for an offense classified as a misdemeanor.

The decriminalization bill got bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. But some lawmakers had doubts.

“We see that other states have done varying degrees of changes in their marijuana policy, and I think in those states, we’ve seen varying degrees of success and unintended consequences and problems that have arisen," said Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert.

One Virginia sheriff told WHSV during the General Assembly’s initial session he thought the bill was “a horrible idea.”

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