Virginia is on the brink of decriminalizing marijuana after both chambers approved the proposed legislation.
The House passed HB 972 in a 64-34 vote on Monday, just a month after it was pre-filed. It would decriminalize simple marijuana possession and impose a civil penalty fine of no more than $25.
“Since this issue disproportionately affects people of color, it is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal justice system,” said sponsor Charniele Herring, the House Majority Leader.
A companion bill, SB 2, then went to a full vote in the Senate on Tuesday after successfully clearing the Judiciary Committee and Appropriations Committee. Senators voted 27-13 in favour of decriminalization.
The legislation now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk to be signed into law. Northam ran on support for decriminalization during his 2017 election campaign and he used his annual State of the Commonwealth speech last month to reiterate calls for removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession, so there is no chance of him fighting the legislation.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has spearheaded the campaign to liberalize the state’s approach to marijuana. He immediately issued a press release welcoming the passage of the decriminalization bill in both chambers, but urged marijuana advocates to keep going, because “the work is not done”.
Herring estimates that the state spends $81 million enforcing cannabis laws on an annual basis. Analysis shows that around 20,000 Virginians were convicted of simple marijuana possession in 2018, and more than half were African American, despite the fact that African Americans make up just 19% of the state’s population.
Current legislation imposes a maximum of 30 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500 for someone convicted of simple possession in the first instance.
The Attorney General said that Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled people with criminal records for far too long, and it has disproportionately affected African American communities. He now wants the state to head towards full legalization of adult-use cannabis sales.
Herring is running to replace Northam in 2021. The current governor has not yet declared support for full legalization, but Herring is confident he will back it if he is presented with all the facts.