Gov. Northam approves bill to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia


RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) —Over this past weekend, as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed or vetoed hundreds of bills passed by the General Assembly ahead of the governor's deadline Saturday night, he approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the commonwealth.


Attorney General Mark Herring says the state will become “a more fair, just, and equal place” now that simple possession of marijuana will be decriminalized.


The new law scraps criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. It also creates a workgroup to study the impact of the legalization of marijuana and eventually release a report on the matter.


Lawmakers this year killed bills that could have legalized the drug, opting for decriminalization as a slower step forward.


Supporters have argued the measure is needed, in part, because African Americans are disproportionately charged with drug crimes.


“Decriminalization is an incredibly important first step, and one that many thought we may never see in Virginia, but we cannot stop until we have legal and regulated adult use,” Herring said in a statement.


The new law, which takes effect July 1 if the General Assembly agrees to technical amendments proposed by Northam, reduces penalties for offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana to a civil violation, which means no arrest and no criminal record.


Current laws set fines up to $500, with possible jail time, for an offense classified as a misdemeanor.


The decriminalization bill got bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. But some lawmakers had doubts.


“We see that other states have done varying degrees of changes in their marijuana policy, and I think in those states, we’ve seen varying degrees of success and unintended consequences and problems that have arisen," said Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert.


One of our local sheriffs told WHSV he thought the bill was "a horrible idea."


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.


"Virginians have long opposed the criminalization of personal marijuana possession, and Governor Northam’s signature turns that public opinion into public policy,” said NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini.


The new law also seals the criminal records of past marijuana offenders from employers and school administrators and defines substances previously considered hashish as marijuana.


In addition to approving marijuana decriminalization, Gov. Northam also signed Senate Bill 1015, which states that no person may be arrested, prosecuted, or denied any right or privilege for participating in the state’s medical cannabis program.

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