Legislators have moved a step closer toward decriminalizing marijuana in Virginia.
On Feb. 9, nine GOP delegates joined House Democrats to pass House Bill 972, reducing the penalty for possession of a half ounce or less of marijuana to a $25 fine – a first offense that was previously punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
This vote comes just a week after the General Assembly shut down proposals to fully legalize the drug. Lawmakers said they will study that issue and potentially move forward when they reconvene in 2021.
“To legalize it now would not be good, but this hopefully would take us one step closer to reducing the arrest and jailing of people for simple possession,” said the bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
According to the Canna Law Blog, “decriminalization” means that a given activity can only be treated as a civil infraction, whereas “legalization” provides that said activity is no longer considered criminal conduct.
Although HB 972 is part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s criminal justice reform, some advocates were disappointed with the Assembly’s vote.
Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said that she opposes HB 972 because it would make the possession of marijuana a criminal charge for juveniles.
According to the bill summary, a youth caught with possession of marijuana would lose his or her license for six months.
“Anything that does not move us into the direction of stopping the harm and helping to move us into the direction of remediating the effects of the war on drugs is something that [the ACLU] cannot support,” Gastañaga said.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder and executive director of Marijuana Justice, said that though arrests may decrease under HB 972, reducing the penalty ultimately won’t alleviate the overarching issue of disproportionate enforcement experienced by minorities. According to the ACLU, African Americans are three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts.
Herring acknowledged these criticisms of her bill, but said the legislation an important first step.
“I recognize that decriminalization will not eliminate the racial disparities within the issues surrounding marijuana,” Herring said, but “it will prevent low level offenders from receiving jail time.”
Del. Don Scott Jr., D-Portsmouth, said he too recognizes these concerns but believes HB 972 will help alleviate the impact that marijuana related crimes has had on the African American community.
“To do nothing, as I’ve heard people say, is better [than] to do something. I think that is [crazy],” Scott said. “We have to do something, and I think this gets us in the right posture…To be able to continue to study this as we move towards legalization.”
Though it won’t happen this session, the process to legalize marijuana is underway. On Feb. 19, the Senate passed a resolution to commission a study for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana.
Higgs Wise said this study, to be conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, will help prepare Virginia for legalization by determining how to equitably build both a regulation and reinvestment model for marijuana production.
“So when we start making revenue off of cannabis, what does our reinvestment look like for the communities that have been adversely impacted?” Higgs Wise said. “[The Assembly] is set to make money and tax marijuana, but they’re not ready for that re-investment portion. But we do need the data first.”
The House Courts of Justice Committee also voted to refer three more legalization bills, filed by Dels. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge; Lee Carter, D-Manassas; and Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, for study.