Despite public support, no marijuana decriminalization in 2018

A bill was introduced in the Virginia Senate that would eliminate jail time for first-time marijuana offenses.

Virginians of both political stripes are broadly supportive of efforts to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana in the state. It seemed probable, therefore, that 2018 would be the year when state lawmakers would finally join 21 other states and the District of Columbia in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Unfortunately, as Fauquier Now reports, it looks as though Virginians will have to wait at least another year before a marijuana decriminalization bill actually makes it through the legislature.

Senate leader backs down

The reason 2018 seemed like such a promising year for marijuana decriminalization advocates was due to Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment's public support for decriminalization. As Senate Majority Leader, Mr. Norment's support is crucial for the passage of any major piece of legislation. However, faced with the growing prospect that a decriminalization bill would have difficulty passing the House of Delegates, Mr. Norment opted for a compromise bill instead.

That compromise won't decriminalize marijuana, but it would eliminate jail time for first-time marijuana offenders and make it easier for them to expunge the record of that conviction. Expungement is especially important since it means that an expunged conviction won't be visible to employers, landlords, financial institutions, and colleges, thus ensuring that a criminal record doesn't impose unnecessary barriers to getting ahead in one's life.

Decriminalization advocates disappointed

While many marijuana advocates are pleased to see expungement become more widely available for some marijuana offenses, they were largely disappointed with the limited scope of the bill. For one, the bill essentially codifies into law what has become widespread practice for a while now. Currently, for most first-time marijuana offences offenders can already avoid jail time by completing a probationary program. Once that program is completed, they then have the option of asking a judge to dismiss the charges.

Even more frustrating, however, is the fact that large majorities of Virginians support relaxing the state's marijuana laws. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one 2016 poll found that 8 out of 10 Virginians supported replacing marijuana misdemeanor laws with a $100 civil penalty while nearly two thirds supported full legalization of recreational marijuana.

Help with criminal charges

A criminal charge, whether it is for a misdemeanor or a felony, needs to be taken seriously. Even if a conviction results in no jail time, simply having a criminal record could impose seriousle obstacles later on in life and make it hard to get a job, find a place to live, apply for college, or get a loan from a bank. That's why anybody accused of a criminal offense needs to talk to a defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help clients defend their rights and, hopefully, find ways to mitigate the full impact of a charge or conviction.