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Marijuana Decriminalization Advances in Virginia State Legislature

But some activists say the plan doesn’t go far enough to repair drug war inequities.

Marijuana Legalization Bill Killed by Virginia Lawmakers
Per Bengtsson/ Shutterstock

Virginia may be a step closer to reducing its draconian punishments for small-time cannabis possession. SB2, which would clear some past cannabis-related offenses from individuals’ records and reduce sentencing possession offenses, passed from the State Senate judiciary committee by an 11-2 vote, to the finance committee on Wednesday. 

The bill would drop the penalty for small scale possession to $50, which would be a big shift. Currently, if you’re found with even a tiny amount of marijuana, you can be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail and forced to pay a $500 fine. 

“it is time to recognize that the prohibition on cannabis has failed, and move together away from an outdated system that has disproportionately affected people of color in the Commonwealth,” tweeted Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax State Senator Adam Ebbin. 

But not everyone is pleased with the narrowness of SB2’s scope when it comes to repairing the social injustices wrought by the war on drugs. The ACLU of Virginia posted on Twitter, “We are deeply disappointed that the Senate Judiciary committee reported SB 2 to the Senate Finance committee without allowing community members to testify and raise our voices for a more EQUITABLE marijuana legislation.”

The bill also raises the amount of cannabis that qualifies for an intent to distribute charge from a half-ounce to an ounce. 

Under the plan, cannabis possession would remain a civil offense for those under 18, who might be sent to substance abuse screening programs or have their license suspended in case of being caught with pot. 

A legislative attempt to regulate recreational cannabis failed last year, but both the state’s governor and attorney general support legalization. 

What Does The Future Hold?

Governor Ralph Northam has identified cannabis regulation as part of his criminal justice reform agenda, and during his recent State of the Commonwealth speech announced that decriminalization of the drug is one of his administration’s top priorities. Northam expressed his enthusiasm for the drive behind SB2. 

“This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive Commonwealth, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these measures into law,” the governor said.

State Attorney General Mark Herring has also been quite forthright about his belief that legalizing marijuana would improve justice in Virginia. In December, he held a day-long summit to discuss cannabis-related issues in which pro-pot local politicians and policymakers from states that have already legalized spoke. 

With key allies in the cause, marijuana access has not been entirely standstill in Virginia. In fact, last summer a trio of bills related to medical cannabis were signed into law. Legality issues were cleared up around which products dispensaries are able to distribute. Another of the initiatives authorized caretakers to pick up cannabis medications for less mobile patients. The third allows school health professionals to administer students’ cannabis prescriptions. That’s a big deal, as only three other states currently allow that practice, oftentimes forcing parents to leave their jobs to come give their young kids their necessary medication.

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