Lawmakers in Virginia voted on Sunday to decriminalize marijuana with the passage of a bill that would make possession of small amounts of pot a civil offense. The legislation now heads to the office of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who is expected to give his approval.
Under the measure, Senate Bill 2, possession of less than one ounce of cannabis would be considered a civil offense punishable by a fine of not more than $25. Under current Virginia law, possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana is considered a crime that can be punished with up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
“This means close to 30,000 people a year will no longer be labeled as criminals and no longer will suffer the negative repercussions of a criminal conviction,” said Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, the development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the executive director of the group’s Virginia affiliate, said in a press release that the legislature has finally reflected the will of the people.
“This long overdue victory comes after years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its members,” Pedini said. “A supermajority of Virginians have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of personal possession, and the legislature has finally taken action to turn public opinion into public policy.”
SB 2 was passed on the final day of the legislative session by a vote of 27 to 12 in the Virginia Senate and by a margin of 56 to 36 in the state’s House of Delegates. The bill also includes provisions that allow for the expungement of some criminal and civil offenses related to cannabis.
Long Road To Reform
For years, cannabis reform advocates in Virginia have been working to relax the state’s strict marijuana prohibitions, only to be thwarted by the state’s Republican majority in the legislature. But after a “blue wave” of support in state elections last year gave control of the governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly to the Democrats, success seems all but assured. Northam made marijuana decriminalization a goal of his campaign for the governor’s office and called on lawmakers to take on the issue in this year’s State of the Commonwealth address in January.
Eileen Filler-Corn, the Speaker of the House of Delegates, is the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold the position. She said that the elections last year have led to a legislature that mirrors the state’s voters.
“This is our most diverse General Assembly membership ever … It actually looks like Virginia,” said Filler-Corn. “We had a unique opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of Virginians.”
The legislators also approved a separate measure that calls for a study exploring the issue of legalizing cannabis in the state. And last week, lawmakers voted to expand Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program and to formally legalize CBD and THC-A oils. Medical marijuana patients were only given an affirmative defense in court under previous legislation.
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