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Is Marijuana Decriminalization in VA a Nonstarter?

Five companies are expected to open Virginia's first medical cannabis dispensaries in 2019. (gjbmiller/Pixabay)
Five companies are expected to open Virginia's first medical cannabis dispensaries in 2019. (gjbmiller/Pixabay)
January 3, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers have managed to rid the state of common restrictions around the approval of medical marijuana, but an effort to decriminalize possession of small amounts of weed might be a nonstarter for Republicans in control.

Instead of being sentenced up to 30 days in jail and a maximum $500 fine for possessing a half ounce or less of marijuana, Alexandria Democrat Adam Ebbin's Senate bill would change current law to a simple $50 penalty for a first violation.

However, it looks as though marijuana advocates will have to settle for the highs of policy reforms in 2018 because Republicans in charge of committees to hear the bill aren't willing to support decriminalization.

"The writing is on the wall,” says Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “These members are primarily prosecutors, former prosecutors, former law enforcement, and maintaining the status quo is something that works for them."

Opponents are concerned that decriminalization would lead to more teens using as well as an increase in impaired driving.

Pedini says her organization already is looking ahead to the 2020 legislative session when every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election at the end of the year.

Public opinion polls show the majority of Virginians support the idea behind Senate Bill 997, and Pedini says she's not buying the excuses from Republicans in charge of the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees.

"No, I don't think the reasons they provided are legitimate, like this isn't a priority for their constituents, which as we know from polling is in fact untrue,” she states. “Three quarters of Virginians support fines, not crimes, for simple marijuana possessions.”

The bill will have to gain the unlikely approval from those committees before it can get a floor vote. So advocates are hoping for additional Democratic shifts by the 2020 session to see advancement in proposed reforms.

According to Pedini, 23 states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana and 33 states allow medical cannabis programs.

Trimmel Gomes, Public News Service - VA