Decriminalizing marijuana has bipartisan support in Virginia

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va (WRIC) — Many are expecting the General Assembly to decriminalize the possession of marijuana this year but lawmakers are still debating the details.

A bill being considered by the Senate has bipartisan support. Five Democrats and three Republicans, including Sen. Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-3), co-sponsored it. Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and Attorney General Mark Herring pushed for the legislation before the 2020 session started.

“It’s well past time that public policy catch up with public opinion,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, a nonprofit pushing for reforms to marijuana laws.

Pedini said decriminalization is a good first step but the commonwealth shouldn’t stop there. They said the policy won’t do anything to address illegal drug sales nor consumer safety.

Plus, “It wont do anything to reduce the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws not only among races but also among municipalities,” Pedini said.

Lawmakers do expect decriminalization to have a significant impact on arrests. According to data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, more than 15,000 people were convicted for a first or second marijuana possession offense from July 2018 to June 2019. The vast majority were sentenced to probation but more than 1,300 served time in jail for an average of about nine days.

“Having somebody sit in a jail for weeks on end awaiting a trial for minor possession and costing taxpayers a $120 dollars a day in Chesterfield County, it comes to a point where it’s really counterproductive to spend thousands to house somebody,” said Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard.

One Senate bill makes marijuana possession a civil penalty with a fine of up to $50 dollars. That’s down from a maximum of $500 dollars and 30 days in jail for a first offense. A House version of the bill sets stricter penalties for those who smoke or ingest marijuana in public or while operating a motor vehicle.

“I think $50 dollars is too little to be a deterrent,” Leonard said. He suggested increasing the fine in the bill to $250 for a first offense.

The Senate bill raises the bar for a more serious distribution charge from a half ounce to an ounce of marijuana.

Lawmakers are also looking at scrapping substance abuse screenings and license suspensions, except for cases involving juveniles.

The Senate bill outlines criteria for people to have convictions removed from their record. The House version includes language that prohibits the release of records pertaining to past convictions to employers and educational institutions.

If these bills pass the House and the Senate respectively, lawmakers expect a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers will need to work out the differences between bills before anything can be signed by the governor.

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