Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia officially signed the state’s biennial budget. Among the formally signed bills was one to decriminalize cannabis possession in the commonwealth. Gov. Northam attempted to persuade lawmakers to amend HB 972 to extend the state’s study of cannabis and not allow trial by jury for the penalty of simple possession. However, the General Assembly rejected those amendments in their April session.
The original version of HB 972 is the one that will go into effect, scrapping criminal charges for simple possession. There will be a civil penalty of $25. Lawmakers killed bills that would have legalized cannabis opting instead for the more conservative approach.
Decriminalization is no small step and signifies the states willingness to move forward. The new law will take effect July 1 despite the rejected amendments, reducing penalties for offenses involving the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis to a civil violation which means no arrest and no criminal record.
Previously those arrested for cannabis possession were subject to fines set at $500 with possible jail time. According to data provided by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, more than 15,000 people were convicted for a first or second cannabis possession offense from July 2018 to June 2019.
The new law will also seal criminal records of past cannabis offenders from employers and school administration. Gov. Northam also signed into effect Senate Bill 1015 which forbids the arrest, prosecution or denial of any right or privilege for participating in the state’s medical cannabis program.
The medical program is expected to be operational mid-year. As of now, twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized or legalized adult-use or medical cannabis. The bills signed by Gov. Northam have set the stage for Virginia to be one of the next states to consider adult-use cannabis.