A Virginia House committee approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession on Wednesday.
There were numerous decriminalization proposals under consideration in the House Courts of Justice Committee, but the panel ultimately integrated them into legislation sponsored by the committee’s chair, Rep. Charniele Herring (D).
Herring, who also serves as the majority leader in the House of Delegates, told Marijuana Moment that the bill is “an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
“This bill will not eliminate the racial disparities surrounding marijuana,” she said, “but it will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization in coming years with a framework that addresses both public safety and equity in a soon to be emerging market.”
The legislation has the support of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D), who campaigned on decriminalization and included the policy change proposal in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech last month.
“Today marks the first time the House Courts of Justice Committee has approved a decriminalization bill,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We’re especially grateful to Delegate Herring for her thoughtful amendments and look forward to continuing our work with the legislature to reduce the cruel and disparate impact of marijuana laws in the Commonwealth.”
“For years, Virginians have spoken loudly and clearly in favor of decriminalization, and today their voices were heard.”
This 12-8 vote to approve the bill comes one week after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed separate decriminalization legislation. Before that, a subcommittee of that panel advanced the bill in a voice vote.
The Virginia ACLU opposes both measures, arguing that they do not go far enough to right the wrongs of the drug war.
UPDATE: We're disappointed HB 972 (@C_Herring), an inequitable marijuana decriminalization bill, passed its committee despite public opposition.
This bill would not end racist police stops & punish young people more harshly than adults. We will continue to push back against it. pic.twitter.com/ASacmCCnyD
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 6, 2020
Under the legislation as amended and approved by the committee, possession of up to a half ounce would be treated as a civil violation punishable by a maximum $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Current law stipulates that possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
The bill, H.B. 972, would make it so substance misuse screenings and driver’s license suspensions for cannabis offenses “apply only to criminal violations or to civil violations by a juvenile.” It also provides a pathway to have prior marijuana convictions sealed.
Further, the secretaries of agriculture and forestry, finance, health and human resources and public safety and homeland security would be required to convene a work group to study the potential impact of legalizing marijuana and develop a regulated market. The group would have to issue a report on its findings by November 1, 2021.
If the House and Senate approve differing decriminalization bills, lawmakers will have to convene a conference committee to reconcile the legislation into a single proposal to send to Northam.