In May, the state of Virginia signed two bills into law that decriminalized the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam approved the new laws and joined almost thirty states that have stopped prosecuting possession of marijuana as a criminal. The law went into effect in the state on July 1st. For many, this is seen as a step in the right direction to prevent Virginians from having their lives or livelihoods derailed over minor cannabis possession offenses.
“Under the new Virginia Law, possessing up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use is not a crime at all, it no longer results in a criminal record, and the maximum penalty is $25 – which is the lowest fine of any decriminalization legislation in the country” explains Criminal Defense Attorney Patrick Woolley. While Virginia has not fully legalized the use or possession of marijuana, the state is taking one of the necessary steps to reflect the change in rights and protections desired for citizens of the state.
Previous Marijuana Legislation
Previous Virginia law had possession of marijuana punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and up to 30 days in jail for a person’s first offense. This also included a mark on a person’s criminal record. Second offenses could incur up to $2,500 in fines and up to 12 months in jail.
Under the revised legislation, the penalties for possession of the substance are less detrimental to a person’s livelihood as they are only classified as a civil infraction. Additionally, the new law says that records relating to arrests, charges, or convictions for possession of marijuana will be sealed in many instances. This would prohibit employers or educational institutions from asking individuals about a record relating to low-level marijuana possession.
Why Decriminalize it Now?
The current governor of Virginia, democrat Ralph Northam, had a campaign promise that he would reform the states marijuana legislation. While some are happy about the progress made in marijuana decriminalization, others are also looking for its full legalization.
Much of the country is recognizing the bias and detriment a conviction for minor marijuana possession can have on a person’s life. Not only could it significantly impact a person in real time, from loss of a job to immediate jail time, but it may have lingering effects on a person’s future through a criminal record.
In 2018, almost 29,000 arrests were made in the Commonwealth that were related to marijuana offenses. This number has tripled since the early 2000’s. Currently, cannabis related arrests account for more than 50% of the total drug arrests in the state.
With decriminalization of marijuana, approvers of the legislation see it as a policy that will allow law enforcement officials to focus their resources and attention on more serious criminal cases. It will also help prevent Virginians from having their lives turned upside down from a simple possession charge.
Moving Into Tomorrow
While bills that would completely legalize marijuana have reached lawmakers in Virginia, many opted for bills that would decriminalize the substance as a slower step forward. The ramifications of the bills that were approved in May will have their success assessed by a work group and will report its findings to the General Assembly by November 2021.
There has also been a push in many cities across the country, including Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, to stop testing certain workers for marijuana as a condition of their employment. The rationale behind this decision mirrors the reasoning behind current legislation, that small amounts of marijuana for personal use should not severely impact a persons ability to lead a productive life.
However, despite the steps that have been made forward to level the playing field for those burdened with criminal records from minor possession charges, there is still much to be done to undo decades of negative associations with the substance. While marijuana related federal legislation has circulated Congress, only time will tell what additional reform might occur across the country during the fight for its widespread legalization and acceptance.