Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has signed legislation that decriminalizes cannabis possession and seals the criminal records of marijuana offenders.
The House passed HB 972 in a 64-34 vote back in February, just a month after the bill was pre-filed. Companion bill SB 2 gained Senate approval in a 27-13 vote and the legislation was sent to Northam’s desk.
The governor Tweeted on Easter Sunday to reveal that he has now approved the legislation. “As we decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and seal the records of prior convictions, I am proposing a study to assess the impact of fully legalizing marijuana in the Commonwealth,” said Northam.
Marijuana possession now carries a civil penalty fine of no more than $25 in Virginia. There is no longer a threat of jail time, and it will not result in a criminal record.
Previously simple possession was considered a criminal offense, with a maximum fine of $500 and up to 30 days in jail. Virginians would also be lumbered with a criminal record, which made it harder for them to gain employment, housing and education.
Criminal records will now be sealed from employers and school administrators.
Campaign group NORML said the new law turns public opinion into public policy, as surveys have consistently suggested that Virginians oppose the criminalization of marijuana possession.
The state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, was a driving force in the campaign for decriminalization. He explained that Virginia spends $81 million per year enforcing unpopular cannabis laws, and argued that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Further studies showed that African Americans were disproportionately impacted by the existing legislation, strengthening the argument for decriminalization.
Northam will be unable to run for re-election next year, as the state constitution prevents governors from serving consecutive terms. Herring is running to replace him.
The Attorney General is a staunch advocate of marijuana legalization. He views decriminalization as the first step towards a legal market in Virginia, and he has urged advocates not campaigning.
State delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax have both declared among the Democrats, while Sen. Amanda Chase is the sole Republican to declare thus far.
Northam secured 53.9% of the vote in 2017, and Democrats have held the post of governor since 2013.
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