Virginia Governor Announces “Bold Step” in Marijuana Decriminalization

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed marijuana reform legislation aimed at a more equitable criminal justice system in Virginia.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) announced new cannabis reform legislation this month that would change many of the Commonwealth’s historically harsh punishments for marijuana and drug offenses. Northam intends to bring the decriminalization package to the 2020 General Assembly session.

During the legislation announcement on Jan. 3, Northam said that “societies must have laws and punishments for those who break them, but justice must be fair and equitable, and the punishment should fit the crime.”

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” he added, speaking at a Richmond nonprofit facility that helps rehabilitate formerly incarcerated individuals. “This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive commonwealth.”

Northam’s criminal justice reform plan includes the decriminalization of simple cannabis possession. The first-term governor noted that in 2018, nearly 29,000 Virginians were arrested for marijuana-related charges, making up 60 percent of the Commonwealth’s arrests.

His proposed legislation includes a change for low-level, simple cannabis possession to a $50 civil penalty instead of arrest. It would also clear the records of individuals with prior simple cannabis possession convictions.

Current Virginia marijuana law states that those found in possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana receive a $500 fine and 30 days in jail, and that a second arrest result in a $2,500 fine, in addition to a driver’s license suspension and up to a year in jail.

Parole reform is another piece of the marijuana reform package. Northam wants to change the state’s parole system by funding the Virginia Parole Board with $1.3 million to develop release plans for offenders who are eligible for parole and to support additional part-time investigators to conduct investigations related to petitions for pardon.

Highlights of Gov. Northam’s Criminal Justice Reform Plan

Northam’s proposal also calls for the following:

  • 59 new public defenders
  • An eradication of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fees and fines
  • An increase of age when a juvenile can be tried as an adult without court approval to 16. Currently, some youth ages 14 or older can be tried as adults without court approval.
  • Allowing offenders to earn credit for community service during imprisonment
  • The elimination of driver’s license suspensions for drug crimes and the elimination of license suspensions for failure to pay jail fees

Funding for Northam’s Criminal Justice Reform Plan

To fund the cannabis decriminalization reform, Northam secured funds in the proposed budget for fiscal years 2020-2022. Those include:

  • $4.6 million over the next two years to fund an expansion of pretrial and local probation services
  • $2 million over the next two years to fund pre-release and post-incarceration services to support public safety and reintegration of adult offenders
  • $5.6 million to hire additional district court clerk positions

Find the full version of Gov. Northam’s criminal reform package, here.

Virginia’s Marijuana Laws

Even as recreational cannabis remains illegal in Virginia, a recent report found that 61 percent of Virginians support full legalization. Medical marijuana is legal in the Commonwealth and over the last several years, the state’s program has expanded.

Cannabis News

Follow the steps of Gov. Northam’s transformative criminal justice reform package by checking back in at our cannabis industry news page.