During its Reconvened Session last week the General Assembly approved an amendment proposed by Governor Ralph Northam that decriminalizes the possession by adults of a small amount of marijuana effective July 1, 2021. Virginia joins 26 other states and the District of Columbia that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. This generally means certain small, personal-consumption amounts are a civil or local infraction, not a state crime (or are a lowest misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time). Based on the new law in Virginia, adults can grow up to four plants, gift it in private, or have an ounce or less in their possession if they are over 21. Selling, buying, or driving with marijuana remains illegal at this time. People given a summons for possession for an amount beyond the minimum will be issued a summons for marijuana possession for which they have the option of prepaying the civil penalty of $25 instead of going to court.
I voted for the Governor’s amendments as necessary to reflect the realities of marijuana possession and use. The people of Virginia will be no less safe as a result of these changes. Our jails will be less full of persons who use marijuana recreationally for themselves, and persons who do so will not be labeled a criminal. Previously marijuana possession was a criminal offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or up to a $500 fine. Public opinion polls have shown that 83 percent of Virginians support lowering criminal possession to a fine and 61 percent support ending prohibition all together.
I also supported the changes in laws related to the use of medical cannabis in 2017. The law enacted at that time permitted patients suffering from intractable epilepsy to use some types of cannabis oil with a doctor’s certification. Subsequent amendments to that law allow patients with any condition to receive recommendations to use and purchase cannabis preparations with no more than10 milligrams of THC per dose. Extracts sold under the provisions of this law must be produced by processors approved by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. Thirty-three other states have similar laws related to the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Retail sales of marijuana will not begin until January 1, 2024. Many complex issues remain to be resolved as to who will be certified to sell the product, how an illicit market will be controlled, and what the limitations on purchasing will be. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a 175-page report in November 2020, titled “Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization” that sets direction with options as to how the state should proceed with full legalization. There is a determination on the part of most legislators that the current system for labeling persons criminal and putting them in jail is not appropriate and that total reform is needed. Minority communities have been particularly hard hit by the current system. Much work remains to be done, but I believe Virginia is taking a responsible route to fixing the laws about weed.