Virginia legalized it, but people in prison on marijuana charges will stay there under new law

Virginia legalized it, but people in prison on marijuana charges will stay there under new law
Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation legalizing marijuana in Virginia at a ceremony on Wednesday. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Marijuana will be legal to possess and grow in Virginia on July 1, but people serving jail and prison sentences related to the drug will remain behind bars under legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this month.

Lawmakers had considered including a provision that would have granted resentencing hearings to people incarcerated on certain marijuana charges, but the language didn’t make it in the final bill — an outcome some lawmakers and advocates are calling a disappointment.

“That was urgent to me because now we’re going to be in a situation where you’ve got people still sitting in jail for the very thing that we’ve already legalized,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who co-sponsored the legislation. “It makes no sense to me.”

Democrats who worked on the legislation, which lawmakers celebrated with a ceremonial bill signing Wednesday, said this week they were unable to reach an agreement on resentencing due to the complexity of the issue combined with the last-minute nature of the amendments that sped legalization to this summer.

Some, including Lucas, also doubted Democrats would have been able to muster the votes to pass the measure this year. The party holds a 10-seat majority in the House but just a 21-19 advantage in the Senate.

Virginia’s legalization bill followed a long and winding path through the General Assembly, nearly failing in the final days of the legislative session amid disagreement between the House and Senate. The compromise the two chambers finally passed was widely panned for delaying the end of prohibition until 2024 when retail sales would begin.

Northam responded by sending the legislation back to lawmakers with amendments that sped legalization of simple possession to this summer and will allow people to grow up to four marijuana plants per household.

And while sales remain illegal until the regulated marketplace opens in 2024, his amendments significantly relaxed some criminal penalties surrounding the drug. People caught with more than the permitted ounce of marijuana but less than a pound will face a $25 civil infraction, an amount that under current law is subject to felony penalties.

People caught growing large numbers of plants will also face significantly lighter penalties, which range from a $25 fine to a misdemeanor, with felony penalties kicking in only for people caught growing 50 or more plants.

It’s unclear how many people are currently imprisoned on marijuana charges who would have faced lesser penalties under the new law, but data compiled by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission suggests the number is not insignificant.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.