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PolitiFact VA: Cox Questions Strength of New Marijuana Law

Marijuana plant
A marijuana plant at the gLeaf medical marijuana facility. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Speaker: Kirk Cox
Statement: On Virginia’s new marijuana law: “You can have up to one pound with only a $25 fine.”
Date: April 7, 2021
Setting: Radio interview

No Republican in the General Assembly voted for a coming law on July 1 that will legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana in Virginia.

Beyond the legalization, their list of objections includes what they say are light penalties for people possessing much more than an ounce of the drug.

“You can have up to one pound with only a $25 fine,” Del. Kirk Cox, a GOP candidate for governor, said during an April 7 radio interview on WRVA in Richmond.

Let’s put this in perspective. There’s a lot of debate over how many joints can be made from an ounce. The Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal has estimated about 84. A 2011 academic study estimated about 43. So according to these widely cited estimates, there’s somewhere between 688 and 1,344 joints in a pound - a large personal stash.

We wondered whether Cox is right that possession of a pound of pot will be punished with “only a $25 fine” when the law takes effect on July 1. Turns out, he is.

The law establishes anyone 21 or older can legally possess as much as one ounce. It says anyone having more than that is “subject to a civil penalty of no more than $25.” Anyone possessing more than one pound in public could be found guilty of a felony and face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The law is silent on whether a person could have more than a pound in their home.

Marijuana already has been legalized in 15 states. Virginia and two other states have passed laws that will go into effect midyear. Most of the states allow possession of an ounce or less without penalty.

But come July 1, Virginia will have by far the most lenient law in the nation for possession of a pound of pot, according to our analysis of state laws posted by NORML, a national organization seeking to decriminalize cannabis. Virginia will be the only state where possession of a pound is not a crime, and its $25 civil fine - which can be prepaid - will be the country’s least-expensive maximum penalty.

Outside of Virginia, possession of a pound of marijuana is:

  • A felony in 26 states, misdemeanor in 20, and categorized simply as a crime in three;
  • Punishable by prison or jail sentences in 47 states;
  • Subject to maximum $500 fines in six states and higher fines in the rest.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, offered no objections to Cox’s statement, and said the amount of pot that will qualify for a civil fine in Virginia is “a lot.”

Democrats and Gov. Ralph Northam were urgent to pass the bill this year to end racial disparity in Virginia for marijuana arrests. Black Virginians are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites for possession of the drug, according to a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on Virginia pot arrests from 2009-2019.

Under the law, people under 21 caught with a pound of cannabis or less would pay a $25 fine, but also have to enter a substance abuse treatment and education program.

It will remain illegal to sell or barter pot. Possession of more than a pound will remain a felony.

The 283-page law also legalizes state-regulated retail sales of marijuana starting in 2024. Many aspects of the complex regulatory framework will have to be approved again next year by the General Assembly.

Many Republicans, including Cox, said the law is rash. Pedini supports the goals in the bill, but said legislators needed more time this year to work on it. “I don’t think it’s properly structured,” Pedini said. “I don’t think it will remain the way it is.”

Northam signed the bill at an April 21 ceremony. “This is the latest step we are taking to building a more equitable and just Virginia,” he said.

Our ruling

Cox says that under Virginia’s new marijuana laws, effective July 1, “You can have up to one pound with only a $25 fine.”

He’s right and we rate his statement True.

Sources
Kirk Cox, WRVA Radio interview, April 7, 2021 (6:42 mark).
Interview with Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, April 22, 2021.
Legislative Information System, HB2312, 2021 session.
NORML, State laws, accessed April 20-21, 2021.
Interview with Henry Watkins, chief of staff for state Sen. Adam Ebbin, April 21, 2021.
The New York Times, “How Much Weed Is in a Joint? Pot Experts Have a New Estimate,” July 14, 2016.
Drug and Alcohol Dependence, “Bayesian inference for the distribution of grams of marijuana in a joint,” Aug. 1, 2016.
Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, Fiscal Impact Statement for HB2312, March 31, 2012.
Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, “Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization,” Nov. 16, 2020.