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After ending marijuana prohibition, Virginia lawmakers create penalty for possession

A closeup of a budding marijuana plant
Marijuana advocates say that the new misdemeanor could impact people's lives for years after a conviction, creating issues around housing, education and employment. (File photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Virginia’s two-year budget deal includes a new penalty for marijuana possession. If Gov. Glenn Youngkin approves the budget, carrying more than four ounces but less than a pound of marijuana will be a misdemeanor. 

As of July, adults 21 and older in Virginia can carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public without facing penalties. Getting caught with more than an ounce is a $25 fine that doesn’t come with a criminal charge. Possession of a pound or more is a felony.

But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the agency tasked with researching policy changes in Virginia, recommended the state create a misdemeanor crime between the fine and a felony. In the budget, possession of between four ounces and a pound would be a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine; subsequent offenses would come with jail time.

Marijuana advocates said that’s a bad idea.

“They will be stuck with the collateral consequences once convicted for at least seven years,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, while discussing the lasting impact of criminal records. “That includes barriers to housing, education, employment, benefits and increased risk of deportation.”

A 2021 VPM analysis found that following decriminalization in 2020, Black people were still almost four times more likely than white people to appear in court for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates.

“For decades, legislatures have passed criminal statutes they thought would be narrowly applied, only for police and courts to find loopholes in enforcement, invariably causing disproportionate harm to Black people and their communities,” said Brad Haywood, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia.

Despite the state ending prohibition last year, there still are plenty of restrictions on marijuana in Virginia: It’s still illegal to smoke in public; there’s no way to legally purchase or sell marijuana in the state without a medical license; and it’s still off-limits to people younger than 21. 

The changes lawmakers made this week as part of larger budget negotiations also clarify that the possession limits don’t apply at home, where Virginians are allowed to grow up to four plants.