Even while the Virginia legislature moves toward decriminalizing marijuana, people continue to face criminal charges for possession of cannabis. On Feb. 10, the state’s House passed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and impose small fines and tickets instead. Gov. Ralph Northam expressed his support for the bill, which has been backed by criminal justice reform advocates and others concerned about racial discrimination in policing and incarceration. Sponsors of the bill said that African Americans in Virginia were far more likely to face drug charges, even for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Recreational use still not legalized
Many states across the country are fully legalizing recreational cannabis, but the Virginia bill does not go as far. Instead, it would make possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana an infraction carrying a $25 fine rather than a matter for criminal charges. Higher fines would accompany smoking marijuana in public. Proponents of the bill compared both fines to parking or traffic tickets and said that previous convictions for simple possession under these conditions would be sealed.
Decriminalization has garnered support
In the fiscal year of 2019, over 15,000 people were convicted throughout the state for simple possession of cannabis. Of those 15,000 people, over 1,000 actively served jail time for a cannabis conviction. Decriminalization has widespread support throughout the state, with 83% of voters approving of the bill, according to polling results. However, some have continued to raise concerns about the state’s hesitation in moving towards legalization. People with only an ounce of marijuana could still be charged with possession with intent to distribute.
The consequences of drug charges
Drug charges can still have devastating effects on an alleged offender, especially as a conviction may carry jail time, heavy fines and a criminal record. A criminal defense attorney could help a client defend themselves and work to prevent a conviction for drug crimes.