RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The budget deal approved by Virginia lawmakers creates a new penalty for marijuana possession.
If approved by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the budget will make it a misdemeanor to carry more than four ounces of cannabis but less than a pound in public.
A first offense would be a Class 3 misdemeanor, which will leave those found guilty with a criminal record and up to a $500 fine, and a second or subsequent offense would be a Class 2 misdemeanor, which could bring up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
The inclusion of the new crime into Virginia’s two-year budget deal comes after the General Assembly passed legislation to allow people to have small amounts of marijuana and grow up to four plants in their homes.
Starting in July 2021, people 21 and over in Virginia were allowed to possess up to an ounce for personal use but could face a $25 civil penalty if caught with more. The penalty for possessing more than a pound is far more severe, with those convicted possibly facing a 10-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
Lawmakers voted to pass the deal Wednesday, but several objected to the new misdemeanor charge being added during private budget negotiations between only three legislators.
“There’re a couple of places where we legislate in the budget and we’ve done that before, but I think it’s pretty rare that we create new crimes in the budget,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said on the Virginia Senate floor.
Sen. McClellan, along with others in the state Senate and House of Delegates, spoke out against the new criminal penalties for marijuana, pointing to a lack of public input from those disproportionately impacted by enforcement policies.
“There are new criminal penalties that did not go through a full process,” McClellan said while running down the actions taken on marijuana legalization over the last two years. “But a handful of people that didn’t include a single member of the legislative Black Caucus deciding new criminal penalties going forward, with no real opportunity for public input, is concerning.”
The Virginia CannaJustice Coalition, a group of legalization advocates, denounced the process to include the language in the state budget, citing the racial disparities in enforcement and the costs for taxpayers.
“By reversing decriminalization at this level, the legislators have allowed the reactivation of a culture of criminalization that manifests as issues in health and safety for our families and neighborhoods,” the coalition wrote in a statement.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the General Assembly’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, recommended criminal penalties for marijuana possession in public between an ounce and a pound last year.
In April, Gov. Youngkin proposed that Virginia establish intermediary misdemeanor penalties for possession of more than two ounces in an amendment to a bill from state Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) that was ultimately left in committee without being voted on.
A spokesperson for Youngkin declined to comment Thursday on the provision put into the state budget deal.
The new misdemeanor penalty only applies to public possession of marijuana. They also apply to people in possession of an equivalent amount of cannabis products such as edibles, but the state regulatory board tasked with overseeing the market has yet to make those amounts known.