Marijuana Laws: Understanding Virginia’s Slow Path to Progress

marijuana and gavel

In recent years, public opinion has swayed in a positive direction when it comes to medical and recreational marijuana use. In fact, a poll released by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University recently revealed that 76% of Virginians actively support the decriminalization of “possession of small amounts of marijuana.” Unfortunately, arrests for recreational marijuana possession have reportedly increased by 30% in the last year.

To reflect this burgeoning social and cultural change, Virginia lawmakers have been trying to enact new policies and are even preparing to open the state’s first cannabis oil dispensaries. However, as usual, progress is ultimately slow-coming. While Virginia law now makes allowances for prescribed medical conditions, recreational use and processing is still considered a criminal act. Being charged and convicted of marijuana possession can lead to expensive fines, jail time, and a life-changing mark on an offender’s criminal record.

Even so, progress is inevitable and can’t be halted. Back in February, the Senate passed Senate Bill 954 in a 38-2 vote. This legislative measure would have reduced the penalties associated with first-time marijuana possession charges and even provided offenders with new expungement opportunities. Interestingly, this bill passed not long after the same Senate Republicans killed Senate Bill 111, a decriminalization bill, back in January. In a bold yet controversial move, Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), chose to oppose Senate Bill 954 because it isn’t a decriminalization bill and wouldn’t prevent the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws.

Unfortunately, Senate Bill 954 was defeated by the Virginia General Assembly because it, “simply codifies the existing first time offender’s program, and creates three additional bureaucratic requirements—a marijuana offender registry, an opioid fund and fee, and an expungement method and fee—while eliminating jail time only for first offenses. The increased financial obligations are out of reach for the majority of defendants, and passage of such legislation would stall the advance of decriminalization and expungement for the foreseeable future.”

While this outcome is a disappointment, it does represent a positive step forward if lawmakers can draft a new bill that takes these criticisms into account. The Virginia General Assembly specifically states that they are against Senate Bill 954 because it may prevent better “decriminalization and expungement” opportunities from being executed in the future. Now, the difficult part for lawmakers is drafting a bill that appeases both Senate Republicans and Democrats as well as the Virginia General Assembly.

Back in 2016, Senator Tommy Norment (R-James City), the mastermind behind Senate Bill 954, disappointed many Virginians when he claimed to be open to marijuana decriminalization, but anticlimactically voted against eliminating the criminal misdemeanor charge and making possession a civil offense (Senate Bill 111). The reason he changed his mind is because he feared that a decriminalization bill wouldn’t be accepted by the Virginia General Assembly. Instead, he began working on the less extreme Senate Bill 954. Senator Norment now admits that Senate Bill 954 may not have been the long-desired decriminalization bill, but that it’s still a successful attempt at change, or “a big step forward.”

As of September 25, 2018, Virginia regulators have finally given 5 companies approval to open the state’s first medical cannabis dispensaries. Within the next year, these 5 companies will sell only non-psychoactive CBD and THC-A oils registered to patients with a doctor’s prescription. However, these companies still need to undergo obligatory background checks before receiving their official license awards.

Granted, this new development mostly benefits patients suffering from seizure disorders and other medical conditions. However, historically, other states have followed this same path and have inevitably passed legislation that decriminalizes degrees of recreational marijuana use. Each new bill proposed by a lawmaker is a new attempt at change. Eventually, laws will be passed by the Virginia General Assembly that provide new opportunities for residents burdened with past and present marijuana convictions.

Seek Legal Representation

Being charged and convicted of a drug crime in Virginia can have a lasting and detrimental impact on your quality of life.  If you require legal representation, contact The Law Offices of Daniel J. Miller. Our offices are conveniently located in Newport News, Chesapeake, Norfolk, and, of course, Virginia Beach.

Call The Law Offices of Daniel J. Miller at (757) 267-4949 to schedule a case evaluation.

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