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Virginia Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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Virginia senators advanced a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state on Thursday, voting in favor of a measure to remove the threat of incarceration for simple possession.

The Senate Judiciary Criminal Law Subcommittee passed the legislation in a voice vote. The panel also took up separate bills concerning expungements as well as a separate decriminalization proposal that was adopted into the approved cannabis measure.

The subcommittee’s action came in spite of opposition from the state chapter of the ACLU, which has complained that the reform move doesn’t go far enough and said that it’d prefer the status quo of prohibition until comprehensive legalization is accomplished.

Other reform advocates said that they share concerns about the limitations of SB 2, but they are still in favor of advancing it with certain changes. The bill would make simple possession a civil penalty punishable by a maximum $50 fine, whereas current policy stipulates that a first offense is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

It would also raise the possession 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.

Before approving the bill, lawmakers removed its expungements language, as the issue is already being tackled by other legislation they advanced. It also reduced proposed penalties against juvenile offenders.

The subcommittee agreed to technically integrate the separate decriminalization bill—which included a tiered fine scheme for first, second and third offenses that are being dropped—into SB 2. Under the proposal that is advancing next to the full Senate Judiciary Committee, the $50 fine would be imposed, regardless of the number of offenses.

NORML, Virginia NORML and Attorney General Mark Herring’s (D) office testified in support of the bill.

“Today’s vote is a historic step in the right direction,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Virginia marijuana laws have long lagged behind public opinion, and the legislature’s new found appetite for advancing such a measure is a welcome change.”

“Decriminalization, however, is not a solution to marijuana criminalization,” Pedini said. “It does nothing to impact the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. The Commonwealth must move swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible adult use of cannabis and begin undoing the harms prohibition.”

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, stating 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.”

Herring, who is running for governor in 2021 to replace the term-limited Northam, is in favor of enacting decriminalization as a step on the path toward eventual full legalization. He organized a summit last month where lawmakers heard from officials in legal cannabis states about regulatory challenges and opportunities.

Prior to the event, a Virginia lawmaker filed a legalization bill. Herring said his summit would provide the governor with the resources he needs to embrace comprehensive reform.

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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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