Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced Sunday that he had signed into law a package of criminal justice legislation that includes decriminalization of cannabis possession.
“Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said in a statement on Sunday. “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance. I thank the General Assembly for working with us to build a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”
The decriminalization legislation (Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972) reduces penalties for cannabis possession of up to an ounce to a civil violation that carries just a $25 fine.
Northam also proposed amendments to the package of bills, including one that pushes back a required study on the potential impacts of adult use legalization in the state back by one year, to November 30, 2021. (Cannabis Wire has reached out to Northam and will update with comments.)
Cannabis law reform advocates celebrated the news on Sunday.
“Today’s victory is the result of years of work by Virginia NORML and its members. We’re happy to see that public opinion is one step closer to becoming public policy,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Cannabis Wire. “The shift in the majority is without doubt what established the pathway for passage of this legislation.”
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have slowed legalization momentum in the state, and potentially factored into Northam’s proposal to delay the legalization report.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic has hampered our ability to expedite the timeline for legalizing adult-use. Decriminalization is not the ultimate public policy solution to marijuana prohibition, but it is a step that will drastically reduce arrests and the collateral consequences that result from even a misdemeanor possession charge. It doesn’t do anything to reduce the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws or how those laws disproportionately affect communities of color,” Pedini said.
Virginia has strong support for broader cannabis law reform, including adult use cannabis legalization. Attorney General Mark Herring held a cannabis summit in December to discuss and debate changing the state’s cannabis policies.
“There are smarter, better ways to approach cannabis, and for me that starts with decriminalization of simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions, and moving toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring told Cannabis Wire.
Support for adult use legalization in Virginia is at 61%, according to a September 2019 poll by the University of Mary Washington. Cannabis legislation often failed to gain traction in the state because of a Republican majority in the legislature that remained, generally, opposed to reform. But in November 2019, Democrats regained control of both the House and Senate in Virginia for the first time in more than twenty years.
“Cannabis reform has been bottled up in committees for years under Republican leadership,” Herring said. “Now that Democrats are in the majority and there’ll be new leadership, I’m really optimistic about our chances for getting this passed.”
Cannabis summits, like the one held by Virginia’s Attorney General, are becoming a more common tool for governors, lawmakers, and attorneys general to jumpstart cannabis law reform conversations. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a cannabis legalization summit in October, drawing participation from governors and lawmakers from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Colorado, among others. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan hosted an event in December called “Conversation About Cannabis: Lessons from our Neighbors.”
Vermont is “probably in the worst position we can possibly be in, where we’ve legalized possession of cannabis, but we’ve remained absolutely silent on how Vermonters obtain it,” Donovan said, opening the discussion.
The Virginia cannabis summit included cannabis policy experts from other states: Jim Burack, director of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division; Ashley Wright, chief of legislative operations with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office; and Bill Sieber, first assistant attorney general and board member of Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
At the cannabis summit that Herring led, he highlighted that decriminalizing cannabis is an important part of a broader effort to build a criminal justice system that is “more equal for all Virginians.”
“Front and center is badly needed reform of our cannabis laws in Virginia. I don’t believe that Virginia’s current system of criminalizing cannabis is working. It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions. The human and social costs of this are enormous,” Herring said, emphasizing that communities of color bear the heaviest burdens when it comes to how cannabis laws have been enforced.
The statistics for cannabis arrests paint an urgent picture. During a two decade span, overall arrests for cannabis in Virginia “more than tripled,” from around 9,000 in 1999 to around 29,000 in 2018. “That’s the highest number of marijuana arrests ever recorded in Virginia,” Herring said. About 90% of these arrests were for possession, Herring said, and more than half were 24 or younger.
“It is clear to me that it is time for a new, smarter approach to cannabis in Virginia. And the question that we’re here to answer,” Herring said, is, “what does that look like?”