Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation on Thursday that decriminalizes marijuana possession, joining a majority of states that have ceased treating the drug as a criminal offense.
The new law, which goes into effect July 1, is the latest progressive action taken by state Democrats since taking full control of Virginia’s government in November for the first time in more than two decades.
On Thursday, Northam, a Democrat, signed Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972, creating a civil penalty of no more than $25 for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, with no jail time.
Under current Virginia law, possession of marijuana is punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum 30-day jail sentence for a first offense. For a second offense, the individual is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor — meaning up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.
The two bills were passed by the state legislature at the end of their session in March. The governor last month proposed recommendations to the bills that the General Assembly approved during their reconvened session amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The new law states that any violation will be charged by a summons, which looks the same as the uniform summons for motor vehicle law violations, and that no court costs can be assessed for these violations.
The law also provides that possession of low amounts of marijuana won’t be recorded in a person’s criminal history and that records of any charges or judgments won’t be reported to the state’s Central Criminal Records Exchange.
But if a violation happens while a person is driving, it will be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles and included on the individual’s driving record.
Under the new law, records relating to arrests, charges, and convictions for marijuana possession will be sealed “except in certain circumstances.” Employers and educational institutions will be prohibited from asking individuals to disclose such arrests, charges or convictions.
Virginia is now the 27th state to decriminalize simple cannabis possession, according to the cannabis legalization organization, Marijuana Policy Project.
“We applaud the legislature and the governor for implementing a policy that will allow law enforcement to focus resources on more serious crimes and prevent Virginians from having their lives derailed for possessing cannabis, a substance that is safer than alcohol,” Steve Hawkins, the group’s executive director, said in a press release Thursday.
Advocates of the legislation applauded it as another step for the state toward the full legalization of marijuana.
Back in February, in urging her House members to vote for the bill, Del. Charniele Herring, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said that “the reality is, in Virginia, we are not ready for equitable legalization of marijuana” but that her bill “is better than the status quo in Virginia.”
The bill also creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana and report its findings to the General Assembly and Northam by November 2021.
“We’re thrilled to see that public opinion is one step closer to becoming public policy,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for the Virginia branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a press release Thursday.
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