Virginia state lawmakers are seeking to make public possession of more than four ounces of pot a crime again, less than a year after the legislature voted to legalize recreational cannabis for adults.
Last year, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to legalize possession of up to an ounce of pot for personal use. Possession of between one ounce and one pound of cannabis was made a civil infraction carrying a fine of no more than $25, while possession of more than one pound of weed remained a felony.
But under a budget proposal released by state lawmakers over the weekend, public possession of more than four ounces of cannabis would become a Class 3 misdemeanor criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $500. A second offense would be a Class 2 misdemeanor, with convictions subject to a sentence of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
The bipartisan budget compromise is supported by Republican House Appropriations Chair Barry Knight and Democratic Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell, according to a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“We didn’t get all we wanted but I think, in view of what we got, we are very satisfied,” Knight said after the budget proposal was released on Sunday evening. “I don’t think that the Senate prevailed over the House or the House prevailed over the Senate.”
Last year, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended that Virginia follow the lead of other states and make possession of larger amounts of cannabis a misdemeanor, a change he said was desired by police.
“It’s more in line with what other states are doing so we’re not an anomaly out there by ourselves,” said Knight. “We know our law enforcement wanted it.”
Virginia Activists and Some Lawmakers Oppose Recriminalization
But cannabis activists and some lawmakers, including state Senator L. Louise Lucas, oppose the change in the budget proposal.
“I voted against this before and I am working to stop this latest effort to criminalize marijuana,” Lucas tweeted. “This is targeted at black and brown people who have been overcharged with these ‘crimes’ in the past. We do not need to go back to the past with these laws!”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group Marijuana Justice Virginia, joined other activist organizations in an email sent to Howell on Sunday evening.
“Please stop finding more ways to criminalize Virginians,” she wrote, adding, “let’s work on righting the wrongs from the failed and destructive prohibition.”
“Virginia officials must not allow the budget document to become a legislative workaround to enforce the will of the administration at the exclusion of the voice and will of the people,” Higgs Wise added.
Budget Deal Also Has Hemp Provisions
The budget compromise also includes language that creates new labeling and lab testing requirements for hemp products. The proposal would ban selling edible products containing THC to anyone younger than 21, although it includes an exception for medical marijuana patients. The plan would also prohibit products sold in “certain child-friendly shapes or that are counterfeit products.”
Dylan Bishop, a lobbyist with the Cannabis Business Association of Virginia, praised lawmakers and the administration of Governor Glenn Youngkin for working with the hemp industry to draft the proposal.
“It adequately addresses the legitimate public safety concern over irresponsibly packaged and labeled products without unfairly disadvantaging Virginia’s farmers, retailers and small businesses,” Bishop said in a statement.
But Virginia NORML executive director J.M. Pedini, who backed legislation that would have regulated delta-8 products, said that the compromise agreement “would maintain existing loopholes.”
The budget proposal is not the first time Virginia lawmakers have tried to roll back the cannabis legalization bill passed last year. During this year’s regular session of the General Assembly, Senator Adam Ebbin introduced a bill to regulate cannabis sales that would have created a new misdemeanor possession offense. And in April, the state Senate rejected a proposal from Youngkin that would have set criminal penalties for possession of more than two ounces of weed as part of a hemp industry bill.
The General Assembly will meet in a special session to consider the budget proposal, including the provision to recriminalize possession of more than four ounces of pot.