On May 21, 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia became the 16th state to decriminalize possession of marijuana when Governor Ralph Northam signed Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972.
The law, which becomes effective July 1, 2020, creates a civil penalty of no more than $25 for possession of up to an ounce of cannabis, with no jail time. A violation will be charged by a summons.
There will be no court costs. The violation won’t be recorded in the person’s criminal history, and no charges or judgments will be reported to the state’s Central Criminal Records Exchange. But if the violation occurs while the person is driving, it will go on the person’s driving record and be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, past records related to arrests, charges, and convictions for marijuana possession will be sealed “except in certain circumstances.” Employers and educational institutions will be prohibited from requiring individuals to disclose those records.
The new law is the latest in progressive action taken by state Democrats since they took control of the Governor’s Office, Senate, and House of Delegates for the first time in more than 20 years. “We applaud the legislature and the governor for implementing a policy that will allow law enforcement to focus resources on more serious crimes and prevent Virginians from having their lives derailed for possessing cannabis, a substance that is safer than alcohol,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the cannabis legalization organization Marijuana Policy Project.
But some activists, including the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the decriminalization measure because it didn’t go far enough. Arguing for complete legalization, they point out that decriminalizing possession does nothing to remove the ban on selling marijuana. This forces consumers to purchase from criminal organizations who use the revenue for violent operations. And the fines, while less punitive than arrests and prison time, cause hardship and are often applied in a racially disparate manner.
However, some opponents of legalization favor decriminalization as a means of undoing America’s past “tough on crime” policies that were far too harsh and costly. Yet they don’t want full legalization because they argue it will make pot too accessible, lead to an increase in the number of users, and allow big corporations to market the marijuana irresponsibly.
In addition to the 16 states that have decriminalized marijuana possession, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana (although Vermont and D.C. don’t allow sales).
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