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Gov. Northam signs bipartisan marijuana decriminalization bills into law

virginia state capitol
Photo Credit: traveler1116/iStock Photo

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law two bills, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972, decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The new laws in place on July 1 will reduce penalties for offenses involving personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a $25 civil violation with no arrest and no criminal record.

The new code language also seals the criminal records of past marijuana offenders from employers and school administrators, and defines substances previously considered hashish as marijuana.

The bipartisan, bicameral effort to amend the marijuana possession penalties was led by State Sen. Adam Ebbin and House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring.

“This is a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia,” Ebbin said. “The prohibition on marijuana has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year. It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights.”

“While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased,” Herring said. “This bill will not eliminate the racial disparities surrounding marijuana, but it will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization in coming years with a framework that addresses both public safety and equity in an emerging market.”

“NORML is proud to have worked alongside Sen. Ebbin and Del. Herring, both longtime champions of evidence-based cannabis policy,” said NORML development director, Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of the state affiliate, Virginia NORML.

“This victory comes after many years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its membership,” Pedini said. “And while we applaud Gov. Northam, his administration, and the legislature for taking this step, it’s critical that they work swiftly to legalize and regulate the responsible of cannabis by adults and begin undoing the damages prohibition has waged on tens of thousands of Virginians.”

Twenty six states and the District of Columbia have either legalized or decriminalized the adult possession and use of marijuana.

In March, the legislature approved multiple bills calling on officials to further study marijuana legalization and to make recommendations to lawmakers in advance of the 2021 legislative session.

In addition to approving marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Northam also signed Senate Bill 1015, which states that no person may be arrested, prosecuted, or denied any right or privilege for participating in the state’s medical cannabis program.

The program is expected to be operational and dispensing cannabis products to authorized patients by mid-year.

“As legislators became more comfortable with medical cannabis products, they recognized that patients and legal guardians of children and incapacitated adults need the protections of lawful possession instead of the affirmative defense. That is what SB 1015 provides — a statutory protection against prosecution, not merely an affirmative defense,” said Sen. Dave Marsden.

During the April reconvened session, the legislature accepted Northam’s proposed amendments to Senate Bill 976, which redefines state-approved medical cannabis products previously termed cannabidiol oil or THCA oil as cannabis oil. The bill also allows for an additional five cannabis disposing facilities in each of the state’s five Health Service Areas.

“Later this year, Virginia patients will finally have access to medical cannabis products and explicit legal protections thanks to Sen. Marsden’s legislation. Additional dispensing facilities, telemedicine, and program registration for nonresidents are among some of the many legislative improvements we were able to accomplish this year,” Pedini said.

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