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Key Virginia Senate Committee Approves Marijuana Decriminalization Bill, While Broader Legalization Study Advances

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A key Virginia Senate committee approved a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a House panel approved separate legislation to create a joint subcommittee tasked with studying the broader legalization of cannabis production and sales in the state.

The Judiciary Committee advanced the modest decriminalization proposal in a 11-2 vote. This comes one week after the panel’s Criminal Law Subcommittee passed the bill in a voice vote.

If enacted, the measure would make simple possession a civil penalty punishable by a maximum $50 fine. Current policy stipulates that a first offense is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

“Years of hard work by so many open-minded organizations and legislators have made this bill more equitable and just,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the legislation’s sponsor, told Marijuana Moment. “It is time to recognize that the prohibition on cannabis has failed, and move together away from an outdated system that has disproportionately affected people of color in the Commonwealth. I look forward to continuing my years of work to ensure this bill’s passage in 2020.”

Reform advocates have mixed opinions about the proposal. The state’s ACLU chapter opposes the legislation because members feel it doesn’t go far enough to repair the damages of prohibition and leaves in place penalties that will be unfairly targeted toward communities of color.

Other advocates, including those at NORML, share that concern but support the bill as a step in the right direction that can be built upon.

“It’s well past time that public policy catch up with public opinion, and the Judiciary Committee’s swift 11-2 advancement of SB2 illustrates the legislature’s appetite for just that,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment.

In addition to removing criminal penalties for simple possession, the legislation would also raise the threshold for what can be considered “intent to distribute” from a half ounce to one ounce, and it would remove a separate definition of hashish from state law, meaning that it would be treated the same as cannabis flower.

As introduced, the bill included provisions providing for expungements for prior cannabis convictions, but those were removed during the subcommittee hearing last week because the policy is being addressed in separate legislation that is also advancing.

After clearing the Judiciary panel, the decriminalization bill next heads to the Finance Committee, where it could be further amended prior to arriving on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee cleared a resolution that calls for the formation of a joint subcommittee to consider establishing a “Cannabis Control Commission” to regulate a commercial marijuana market, provide “regulatory guidance” for such a system, make recommendations on licensing, fees, advertising and expungement protocol and analyze existing marijuana programs in legal states.

“Virginia needs to move forward with legalization of adult usage of marijuana in a responsible manner,” Del. Steve Heretick (D), the resolution’s sponsor and the chair of the Virginia Legislative Cannabis Caucus, said. “This comprehensive study will make sure we learn from all the lessons other states have experienced and make sure we put the best practices in place to avoid any unforeseen problems. From a personal liberty, criminal justice and medical standpoint, the time has come for common sense reform of our marijuana laws.”

Pedini of Virginia NORML said that the state needs to “act swiftly and take the necessary steps to legalize and regulate the responsible adult use of cannabis, and begin undoing the harms of prohibition.”

“HJ 130 would begin that process,” they said. “Legalization will not introduce marijuana to Virginia, rather, it reflects the reality that cannabis is already here, and provides lawmakers and health and safety experts the opportunity to govern its use and sale accordingly.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on decriminalization, and he included the policy change proposal in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech earlier this month, arguing that the state needs “to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely.”

While lawmakers are currently focused on getting decriminalization approved, many expect the move to be a first step toward broader legalization—a policy changed supported by Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running for governor in 2021 to replace the term-limited Northam.

Last month, the attorney general hosted a cannabis summit where lawmakers heard from officials in legal marijuana states challenges and opportunities associated with implementing broad reform. Herring said his summit would provide the governor with the resources he needs to embrace comprehensive reform.

Before that summit, a Virginia lawmaker filed a legalization bill, which has been referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee.

This article has been updated to include information about additional cannabis reform legislation that was approved in a House committee.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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