A marijuana decriminalization bill at the center of a debate among reform advocates in Virginia moved forward on Wednesday.
While the state’s chapter of the ACLU has voiced opposition to the legislation, arguing that it doesn’t do enough to protect communities of color from being caught up in cannabis criminalization, the Senate Judiciary Committee has referred the bill to a subcommittee where it’s expected to be amended and sent back to the full panel for a vote.
“I was excited to see the committee’s interest in advancing decriminalization,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the bill’s lead sponsor, told Marijuana Moment. “It was encouraging to see SB2 sent to subcommittee for an earnest discussion on how we can lessen the punitive impact of Virginia’s marijuana laws.”
Advocates generally share some ACLU concerns about the legislation as it’s currently drafted, though the pro-legalization group NORML is interested in advancing it with certain changes. As it stands, 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.
“NORML and Virginia NORML are pleased to continuing supporting Senator Ebbin and the SB2 copatrons in drafting and passing the best decriminalization bill possible,” NORML Virginia Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “We’ve been working with the Virginia legislature for years to achieve broad, bipartisan consensus on this issue, and look forward to crossing the finish line this session.”
The Judiciary’s Criminal Law subcommittee will take up the bill soon, with several amendments on the table. Pedini said that language around expungements, juvenile offender provisions and policies on whether the smell of cannabis should remain as probable cause for searches are among issues that need to be hashed out.
But as far as the ACLU of Virginia is concerned, the simple decriminalization bill is inadequate, and lawmakers need to prioritize comprehensive legalization legislation.
"We cannot support anything that tells Black & Brown Virginians 'You need to wait…for a chance to live free' The time is RIGHT NOW."
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) January 15, 2020
In a letter sent to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Tuesday, the group said decriminalization “does nothing to end racist pretextual stops by police, and continuing to allow law enforcement to use marijuana laws for this purpose, coupled with expanded ‘prosecutorial authority’ for city and county attorneys, likely will result in even greater racial disparities in enforcement than we have with existing laws.”
HAPPENING NOW: We are at the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose SB 2 (@AdamEbbin ), a marijuana decriminalization bill that would do nothing to stop the harm of prohibition on POC.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) January 15, 2020
“The only way to stop the harm is to remove the prohibition on marijuana possession and use from the code completely, making it legal for adults to possess and use marijuana now and eliminating this racist policing tool,” ACLU of Virginia wrote.
SB 2 is being heard now!
Sen. @AdamEbbin mentioned that Black Virginians are 3x more likely to be charged w/ marijuana possession than whites, but his bill would NOT stop racist police stops or address racial disparities in enforcement. We oppose it. @thcjusticenow @RISEforYouth pic.twitter.com/QVWoT1YMiQ
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) January 15, 2020
In an interview this month, the group’s executive director, Claire Gastañaga, said they would “prefer the status quo while we’re waiting for full legalization.”
Northam campaigned on decriminalization during his election bid in 2017 and 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.”
Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running for governor in 2021 to replace the term-limited Northam, is supportive of broader reform and organized a summit last year last month where lawmakers heard from officials in states that have legalized about regulatory challenges and opportunities.
A Virginia lawmaker filed a legalization bill ahead of that summit, which Herring said would provide the governor with the resources he needs to embrace comprehensive reform.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’
Asked in a new interview about President Trump’s position on changing federal marijuana laws, a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.
“I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,” Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 effort, said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Gets Closer To Governor’s Desk With New Amendments
One week after bills to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia were passed by both the House and Senate, they advanced again on Wednesday in committee votes, where they were revised in an effort to ease the path to the governor’s desk.
The goal was to make the language of the bills identical, with lawmakers hoping to streamline the process by avoiding sending differing pieces of decriminalization legislation to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences.
The House of Delegates and Senate were under pressure to approve their respective versions of decriminalization ahead of a crossover deadline last week. After clearing floor votes in their respective chambers, the Senate-passed bill was sent to the House Court of Justice Committee, while the House’s legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those panels amended the bills and advanced them on Wednesday, with senators voting 10-4 to advance the revised legislation and delegates voting 8-5. However, the Senate panel also struck a part of the text of a compromise substitute version concerning a record clearing provision while the House committee accepted the substitute as offered.
That means it will be up to the Finance Committees to resolve the remaining differences if lawmakers hope to skip the conference step prior to full floor votes in both chambers.
Regardless of the unexpected complication, advocates said the new committee actions represent a positive development.
“Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
The legislation as amended would make possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Currently, simple possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
A provision that would have allowed courts to sentence individuals to up to five hours of community service in lieu of the civil penalty was removed with the latest revisions. The bill also stipulates that juveniles found in possession of cannabis will be treated as delinquent, rather than go through a less punitive process for a “child in need of service.”
Language providing a means to seal prior records for marijuana convictions was successfully reinserted into the House Courts of Justice Committee-passed bill after it was previously removed and placed in a separate expungement bill. That latter legislation is stalled, so lawmakers put it back into the decriminalization measure via the substitute to ensure its enactment.
The Senate Judiciary moved to delete that section, however, creating complications for avoiding a conference committee.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee voted in favor of a separate Senate-passed resolution on Wednesday that calls for the establishment of a joint commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022, and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.” That vote was 12-5.
That’s a significant step, as the legislature is generally reluctant to enact bold reform without first conducting a study on the issue.
While Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he’s yet to embrace adult-use legalization. That said, Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana. That’s one tool he said the governor could use as he considers broader reform.
For now, Virginia seems to be on the path to become the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana, and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
Alabama Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
An Alabama Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would be a limited system, however, prohibiting patients from smoking or vaping marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the bill in a 8-1 vote, with one abstention. The next stop for the legislation will be the Senate floor.
The proposal would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would be responsible for overseeing a patient registry database, issuing medical cannabis cards and approving licenses for marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, transporters and testing facilities.
This vote comes two months after a panel created by the legislature, the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, issued a recommendation that Alabama implement a medical cannabis program.
The full Senate approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but it was diluted in the House to only provide for the establishment of the study commission. Sen. Tim Melson (R) sponsored both versions of the legislation and served as chairman of the review panel.
The current bill has been revised from the earlier version. For example, this one does not require patients to exhaust traditional treatment options before they can access medical cannabis.
The committee also approved a series of amendments by voice vote, including several technical changes to the bill. Another one would shield physicians from liability for recommending medical cannabis. One would clarify that employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation for accidents caused by being intoxicated by medical cannabis, which is the same standard as other drugs.
Watch the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee debate and vote on medical cannabis below:
Members also agreed to an amendment creating a restriction on who can be on the cannabis commission.
While it’s not clear how the House would approach the bill if it advances to the chamber this year, the speaker said this week that he’s “in a wait and see mode” and commended Melson for his work on the measure. The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the reform move.
Under the measure, patients suffering from 15 conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.
Prior to the vote, committee heard from a series of proponents and opponents, including parents who shared anecdotes about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for their children. Interest in the reform move was so strong that an overflow crowd has to be moved to a separate hearing room.
“Sometimes people are not able to empathize with others who have gone through something. I guarantee you if one of relatives, members of the legislature, went through something like the testimonies that we’ve heard today, they would want it,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D) said. “But they would probably have the means to fly somewhere and get it.”
One thing we're watching on Goat Hill today is the medical marijuana bill. Alabama is one of only 17 states where medical cannabis remains illegal. https://t.co/V8CK8nm6mm
— Alabama Democrats (@aldemocrats) February 19, 2020
There would be a number of restrictions under the bill when it comes to advertising. It would also require seed-to-sale tracking for marijuana products, set packaging and labeling requirements and impose criminal background checks for licensed facility employees.
A nine percent tax would be levied on “gross proceeds of the sales of medical cannabis” sold at a retail medical cannabis dispensary. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.