Decriminalization and legalization bills fail early in 2019 legislative session
Last update: January 28, 2019
The 2019 legislative session began with several efforts to reform the state’s marijuana policies.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pushed for marijuana decriminalization in his State of the Commonwealth speech and two bills, and HB2079 and SB997, were introduced to decriminalize marijuana, making simple possession a civil fine of $50 for a first violation instead of an offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail.
Additionally, two bills, HB2371 and HB2373, were introduced to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in the state for adults 21 years of age or older.
Unfortunately, these bills were defeated in committee.
Polling has shown that almost eight out of 10 Virginia residents support replacing criminal convictions with a fine, and 62 percent favor ending marijuana prohibition all together. Contact your lawmakers and ask them to support marijuana policy reform!
Virginia passes a quasi-medical marijuana law
During the 2018 session, Virginia lawmakers greatly expanded upon a 2017 law that permitted patients suffering from intractable epilepsy to use some types of cannabis oil with a doctor’s certification. Under the new law, HB 1251, signed by Gov. Ralph Northam on March 9, 2018, doctors can recommend CBD or THC-A cannabis oil for any condition. While the law is being implemented, patients can possess the oil if it meets the state's requirement of at least 15% CBD or THC-A and no more than 5% THC, and they have in their possession their doctor’s recommendation form (called a “written certification”). Unfortunately, the law provides only an “affirmative defense,” a protection the defendant can raise during a criminal prosecution — however, it does not automatically prevent the patient from being stopped, arrested, and charged with marijuana possession by police.
Registration applications for patients, parents/legal guardians, and physicians are available now through the Board of Pharmacy. THC-A and CBD oil will be produced and sold in Virginia only by specially licensed businesses called “pharmaceutical processors.” Applications to become a pharmaceutical processor were open through June 8 2018; a $10,000 non-refundable application fee was required. The Board of Pharmacy has issued conditional approval to five pharmaceutical processors to produce and dispense these oils.
MPP will continue to monitor the implementation of this law; for our one-page summary, please click here.
Decriminalization does not move forward in 2018 session
At the start of 2018, it appeared this would be the year Virginia finally stopped burdening people with a lifelong criminal record just for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol. The Senate Majority Leader, Tommy Norment (R), said he would introduce a bill to decriminalize the simple possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the incoming governor, Ralph Northam, expressed his support. Unfortunately, the bill Sen. Norment ultimately introduced still treated marijuana possession as a criminal offense, although it would have eliminated jail time for first offenders. Current law punishes possession of marijuana with up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
Another bill introduced by Del. Steve Heretick, HB 1063, was voted down by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee. It would have made first time marijuana possession a civil infraction punishable by a maximum fine of $250, and additional offenses punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
In 2017, the Virginia State Crime Commission looked at the issue of marijuana decriminalization and found that 46% of people arrested for first-time marijuana possession were black, even though African Americans make up only 20% of the state’s population.
A poll released earlier this year found nearly eight in 10 state residents support replacing marijuana criminal convictions with a fine, and 62% favored ending cannabis prohibition altogether. Unfortunately, lawmakers are out of touch with their constituents on this issue.
Virginia removes automatic license suspension for marijuana possession
On March 27, 2017, Virginia finally ended the practice of automatically suspending a person’s driver’s license for six months if they are convicted of marijuana possession. Now the courts have discretion as to whether to impose this condition as a term of probation. Anyone receiving such a conviction will still be subject to other conditions under Virginia law, including substance abuse screening, drug testing, and community service. Minors will continue to be subject to the automatic license suspension.
To stay updated on the status of marijuana policy reform in Virginia, be sure to subscribe to MPP’s email alerts, if you haven’t done so already.