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Will Virginia Be the Next to Loosen Its Cannabis Laws?

Virginia lawmakers have requested a study investigating whether marijuana should be decriminalized.

Marijuana policy changes may be on the horizon for one of the most historically conservative states in the U.S. Earlier this month, a Virginia state commission announced that it had agreed to study whether the state should decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The Virginia State Crime Commission will undertake the study and give its recommendations to the General Assembly this year.

“This is a landmark first step toward marijuana-related criminal justice reform in Virginia,” which as of now “lags far behind the national trend on marijuana policy,” said Daniel Rouleau, communications director for Virginia NORML, a non-profit working to reform marijuana laws. “The commission’s decision today is an omen of significant marijuana policy changes.”

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) requested the study after Norfolk Councilman Paul Riddick brought up the possibility of decriminalization during a public meeting last August.

“I think it’s absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana,” Norment said that night. Weeks later, he officially requested the study of the commission, of which he’s a member.

The commission will investigate the effects of decriminalization in other states, issues regarding impaired driving, the latest research studies, and possible conflicts with federal law.

“We get to learn from the experience of other states – look at the things they did right and things they did wrong,” said Sen. Mark. D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), member of the Crime Commission. “The national trend is certainly leaning” to decriminalization.

U.S. Marijuana Laws

As the law in Virginia stands now, possession of marijuana in any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500 for the first offense. Subsequent offenses are punishable by as much as a year of incarceration and a maximum fine of $2,500. According to Virginia NORML, about 22,000 people are arrested in Virginia every year for marijuana-related offenses. Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana would remove the criminal misdemeanor charge and replace it with a civil fine.

“It’s still illegal, the same as speeding is illegal, but instead of this being on a criminal record and following you around for the rest of your life, if you happen to be caught with marijuana as an adult, then you would just pay a fine,” said Dr. Melanie Crovo, the Deputy Director of the Roanoke Valley chapter of Virginia NORML.

Legislation to decriminalize marijuana was introduced but failed to progress out of committee in past legislative sessions. Advocates like Cindy Cutler, leader of the group Decriminalize Norfolk, hope the study from the Crime Commission will serve as an effective way to build a case for eventually getting a bill through the General Assembly in 2018.

“I’m pleased. I think we’ve made a giant step forward in the commonwealth,” she said.

A July 2016 Virginia Commonwealth University poll found that 8 of 10 Virginians support reducing the penalty for small possession of marijuana to a $100 fine rather than a misdemeanor conviction.

Two leading candidates for governor this year, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former Rep. Tom Perriello, have called for decriminalizing the substance and tweeted praise for the commission’s decision to conduct the study.

Nine U.S. states have passed laws decriminalizing certain marijuana possession offenses, and eight others have passed laws legalizing recreational use by adults.

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