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Three things to know about Virginia’s new marijuana laws

The country continues to take steps toward the decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana. Virginia lawmakers recently joined this effort, passing a law that completely alters how the state handles marijuana possession offenses.

What is this law?

The new law, which took effect in Virginia on July 1, 2020, decriminalizes simple marijuana possession. The law does more than simply remove the harsh penalties that formerly accompanied the simple possession of marijuana, it literally changed the nature of the offense making simple possession no more punitive than a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. Three things to know about the changes that result from the passage of this law include:

  • Change in penalties. In the past, if the state could gather enough evidence to support allegations of illegal marijuana possession, the accused could face a fine of $500 and up to 30 days in jail for a first offense and up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500.00 fine for any subsequent offense. Now, the accused faces no more than a civil penalty of up to $25 so long as the amount of marijuana possessed does not exceed one ounce (28 grams).  For those persons caught with more than one ounce, the consequences remain extremely serious and may result in the accused being charged with a felony.
  • Passage of “Ban the Box.” The new law also includes a provision that bans employers and educational institutions from requiring applicants to disclose information related to arrests, criminal charges or convictions for simple possession of marijuana. Many people refer to this provision as the “Ban the Box” provision because it requires employers and educational institutions to remove a box within an application that would require applicants with an arrest, charge or conviction related to the possession of marijuana to check.
  • Impact on criminal record. These changes also mean that minor possession offenses will no longer be reflected on an individual’s criminal record. This is beneficial for many reasons, including the fact that it will help those who are applying for employment or admission to educational facilities avoid a situation where applicants are asked to disclose the presence of  criminal charges or convictions on their record.
  • No license suspensions.  Also effective July 1, 2020, a conviction for a marijuana related offense will no longer require a mandatory suspension of the accused’s license to operate a motor vehicle. For years, convictions (and first offender dispositions) required a license suspension, however, that provision of Virginia Law has been repealed.

While each of these changes represents a step toward legalization, it is important to remember that the new law does NOT legalize marijuana.  Therefore, a citizen who is stopped for a traffic violation and whose automobile smells of marijuana may still be subject to a search of their vehicle based on the smell of marijuana in the car. Further many courts are still taking the position that the use of marijuana by persons on probation is a violation of their probation due to the fact that marijuana is still not legal to consume.

What about those who face drug charges in Virginia?

While the simple possession of marijuana in Virginia is no longer a criminal matter, persons who find themselves charged with possessing large quantities of marijuana (or simple possession of other drugs) need to take steps to protect their legal rights when confronted by the police.  Speaking to an experienced attorney to discuss your options and help you fully understand the consequences you may be facing when charged with such offenses.