Virginia General Assembly Approves Marijuana Decriminalization Bills
Decriminalization is eminent in Virginia. With about a dozen Republicans joining Democrats Tuesday, the House and Senate approved legislation to reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana in the Commonwealth, eliminating the possibility of jail time. But the details of those bills are different, including how some old marijuana convictions should be handled.
Advocates want to make sure that those who were previously convicted on marijuana charges can have their criminal history cleared.
The House version of the bill would seal those records, meaning judges and law enforcement can still look at them. The Senate version allows offenders to have those records expunged.
Some lawmakers, like Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), pushed to legalize marijuana this year. In lieu of full legalization, she wants to make sure past criminal records are gone for good.
“Expungement is complete removal,” Carroll Foy said. “So it can’t harm you getting Pell grants, jobs, housing, etc. Sealment just means, right now, certain people cannot see it. But it doesn’t undo the harm that has been done.”
But some delegates say expungement would be more complex and expensive than sealing records.
According to state police, there were nearly 29,000 marijuana arrests made in 2018. And a 2017 study by the Virginia Crime Commission found that 46 percent of those arrested in Virginia for first-time marijuana offenses between 2007 and 2016 were African American, even though African Americans make up only 20 percent of Virginia’s population.
The Senate bill makes possession of less than one ounce punishable by a fine of no more than $50 dollars. The House bill includes a maximum fine of $25 for less than half an ounce. Both bills make simple possession a civil infraction with a penalty that would be paid like a parking ticket. Right now it’s a misdemeanor. The final bill will be a product of negotiations between the House and Senate.
Regardless, marijuana will remain unlawful in Virginia without a prescription.