Currently, the marijuana laws in Virginia leave residents with a criminal misdemeanor charge, a maximum $500 fine, the possibility of up to 30 days in jail, a criminal record, and potential drivers license suspension. However, on May 14th, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam decriminalized marijuana possession statewide. Once this new legislation goes into effect, there will only be a civil penalty of $25 or less for possession of an ounce or less of marjiuana without the possibility of jail time or creating a criminal record. This new law will go into effect on July 1st, 2020. There will also be a work group assigned to researching legalization. This change in legislation comes after Democrats took over Virginia’s legislature this year for the first time since 1993. Virginia is the 27th state to decriminalize or legalize marijuana.
“The decriminalization of marijuana is not the same as the legalization of marijuana.” explains Criminal Defense Attorney Karin Riley Porter. “Decriminalization simply means that minimized penalties of marijuana possession still exist but jail time is no longer a possibility. On the other hand, legalization means that there are no legal repercussions of marijuana possession and the sale of marijuana could also be legal.”
From July 2018 to June 2019, over 15,000 people in Virginia were charged with marijuana possession charges. Virginia’s new decriminalization bill will also clear the records of citizens who are currently facing legal repercussions due to the previous laws.
Virginia is now the 27th state to stop jailing its residents for marijuana possession. This bill was many months in the making, as Governor Northam has been expressing his support for the decriminalization of marijuana since January during his State of the Commonwealth speech. Even during his 2017 election campaign, Northam advertised his support to remove criminal penalties for marjiauna possession. Virginia is now following the trend as states such as New York, Mississippi, South Dakota, New Jersey, Arizona, Florida, Nebraska and South Dakota are all in the process of decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana.
According to Marijuana Moment, Northam’s administration stated that “Studies show marijuana arrests have disproportionately impacted people of color—this legislation clears the records of individuals who have been previously convicted of simple possession.” Many proponents of marijuana decriminalization believe that this is one of the first steps in combating a system that’s often attributed to racial injustice as people of color are charged at a disproportionate rate to other races. In fact, African Americans are charged at a rate 3.73 times more than whites for marijuana related arrests.
The eleven year report, “Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests in Virginia” showed the increase in marijuana arrests over the past decade in Virginia. The arrests of African Americans in Virginia due to marijuana possession increased by over 50% throughout the report period of 2003-2013. The arrests of whites in Virginia due to marijuana possession increased by only 44% in comparison. This makes the ratio of marijuana arrests in Virginia between African Americans and whites 3.3 to 1.