Virginia lawmakers aim to decriminalize marijuana

Two recently introduced bills in Virginia aim to reform the state’s marijuana possession laws.

The laws regulating the possession and use of marijuana are rapidly changing across the U.S. and while many states have opted to decriminalize the federally controlled substance or legalize its recreational use altogether, Virginia's laws regarding cannabis have remained strict and unchanged. Recently, however, two bills that have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly aimed to make significant reforms to the laws concerning simple possession of marijuana.

Proposed legalization

In the 2019 General Assembly session, two state lawmakers proposed bills to decriminalize the personal use of marijuana for adults who are 21-years and older. Both bills would have also allowed for the cultivation, manufacturing, testing and limited retail sales of the drug. HB 2371 would have imposed a total sales tax of 15% on retail marijuana products, the revenue from which would have been applied to public education and the state's general fund. It would also have decriminalized the possession of marijuana for people under the age of 21. Instead, underage persons found in possession would have been subject to a civil penalty, punishable by a fine of not more than $50.

Similarly, HB 2373 would have imposed a 10 percent tax on retail marijuana products over and above the "normal" sales tax applied to goods. The first $20 million in revenue that would have been collected from the taxation of the drug would have been applied to the Veterans Treatment Fund. The bill also aimed to decriminalize underage possession of marijuana and instead make it a civil penalty, however, the bill would have also imposed a maximum fine of $100 for underage possession of less than two and one-half ounces of marijuana.

Opposition to the bill

Although the lobby for laws aiming to reform the marijuana laws in the Commonwealth appear to be increasing, not everyone supports the proposed changes. Opposition to the proposed legislation is still strong citing fears that decriminalization would increase the instances of impaired driving. Further, one Commonwealth's Attorney who is against the proposed bills claims there is no need to change the current laws because his office already imposes fines rather than jail time in simple possession of marijuana cases.

As of the end of the 2019 General Assembly Session, both of these bills were killed in committee and there were no significant changes made to the marijuana laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Unlawful possession

Regardless of other state laws, the current law within the Commonwealth of Virginia completely prohibits the intentional and/or knowing possession of marijuana. A first violation of this law is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500.00 fine. A second offense is considered a Class I misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine of up to 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500.00 fine. Any conviction for simple possession of marijuana in the Commonwealth of Virginia (first or subsequent offenses) are punishable by a MANDATORY six-month license suspension.

There are some exceptions under Virginia law which permit the possession and use of marijuana products for select medical purposes. It should be noted that these exceptions are VERY limited and must be followed EXACTLY in order to avoid running afoul of the law. Currently, the law allows the limited use of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil by patients with certain qualifying conditions who have obtained valid written certifications from their physicians. In some situations, the parents of minors with qualifying conditions are also permitted to possess these oils.

Obtaining legal counsel

A conviction for marijuana possession in Virginia can have significant and lasting repercussions. Not only may people face the potential penalties associated with being convicted of such offenses, their future educational and employment opportunities can also be affected. Therefore, anyone who has been charged with possession may benefit from seeking legal representation. An attorney can help them understand the laws as they apply to their situations, as well as aid them in establishing a defense to the charges they are facing.