It’s a historic day for cannabis in Virginia, as it decriminalizes cannabis possession offenses and seals the records of past convictions from public view. Governor Ralph Northam, his administration, and the legislator, alongside Virginia NORML, Senator Ebbin and Delegate Herring, have helped make this change in law happen.
Decriminalization Does Not Equal Legalization
However, as most people know, decriminalization does not mean legalization of cannabis for non-medical use; and even medical use of cannabis was, until now, relatively difficult. For those without a medical cannabis certificate allowing them to use affirmative defense, the penalties are:
- Simple marijuana possession provides a penalty of no more than $25 for up to one ounce of cannabis flower, or the products derived from it. This is a change from the past, where possession of a half-ounce or less is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of hash and other concentrates was punished as a felony.
- A person’s criminal history record will not show up in public if they were charged for simple possession of cannabis in the past.
Suspended sentence/substance abuse screening provisions and driver’s license suspension provisions apply only to criminal violations or to civil violations by a juvenile.
- Possession of a half ounce or less of cannabis or hashish oil is considered to be personal use.
- Non-violent, drug-related convictions no longer prevent people from accessing federal assistance.
Virginia’s House Bill 972 (HB 972)
Chief patron: Del Charniele Herring D-46
Chief co-patrons: Del Elizabeth Guzman D-31, Del Dan Helmer D-40, Del Steve Heretick D-79
House patrons: Del Kaye Kory D-38, Del Mark Levine D-45
Possession and consumption of marijuana; penalty. Decriminalizes simple marijuana possession and provides a civil penalty of no more than $25. Current law imposes a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum 30-day jail sentence for a first offense, and subsequent offenses are a Class 1 misdemeanor.
The bill provides that any violation of simple possession of marijuana may be charged by a summons in form the same as the uniform summons for motor vehicle law violations and that no court costs shall be assessed for such violations.
The bill also provides that a person’s criminal history record information shall not include records of any charges or judgments for such violations and records of such charges or judgements shall not be reported to the Central Criminal Records Exchange. Additionally, the bill provides that the suspended sentence/substance abuse screening provisions and driver’s license suspension provisions apply only to criminal violations or to civil violations by a juvenile.
The bill defines “marijuana” to include hashish oil and creates a rebuttable presumption that a person who possesses no more than one-half ounce of marijuana possesses it for personal use.
The bill also (i) makes records relating to the arrest, criminal charge, or conviction of possession of marijuana not open to public inspection and disclosure, except in certain circumstances; (ii) prohibits employers and educational institutions from requiring an applicant for employment or admission to disclose information related to such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction; and (iii) prohibits agencies, officials, and employees of the state and local governments from requiring an applicant for a license, permit, registration, or governmental service to disclose information concerning such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction.
Finally, the bill requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security to convene a work group to study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of marijuana and report the recommendations of the work group to the General Assembly and the Governor by November 1, 2021. This bill incorporates HB 265, HB 301, and HB 481.
HB 972 was approved by Governor Northam 5/21/20 and is effective 7/1/20”
Does Decriminalization Effect Virginia’s Medical Marijuana In Any Way?
To some extent, yes. Virginians with a valid medical cannabis certificate may have a little less to fear when possessing small amounts of cannabis on their person when out-and-about due to the change in legislation. Possession of authorized medical cannabis products by those registered to participate in the state’s program are provided explicit statutory legal protection.
However, it is arguable that decriminalization is a further step towards Virginia having an official medical marijuana program. In fact, at around the same time of signing the decriminalization bill, Governor Northam also gave his signature to legislation formally legalizing medical marijuana in the state. This gives patients more than just an affirmative defense, as they can be a part of an official, state-sanctioned medical marijuana program.
At the moment, Virginia still needs to establish an official medical marijuana program. In the meantime, Virginia medical marijuana patients will need a physician’s certificate from a doctor who is on the VA Board of Pharmacy in order to carry cannabis. The Affirmative Defense guidelines are:
- Keep your certification with your oil at all times.
- Present your certification if questioned by law enforcement.
- If not accepted and charged with possession, call an attorney or ask for court-appointed counsel.
- Present your signed certification 10 days prior to trial as directed.
Can I Get a VA Medical Marijuana Certificate with Leafwell?
Yes, you can. Just follow these four steps:
- Go to https://leafwell.co/medical-card/virginia/
- See a doctor with Leafwell, get approved and receive a doctor’s certification via email.
- Register online with the Virginia DoH and Board of Pharmacy to make an Initial Application. Scan and email, fax or mail the required documentation for the application to be considered complete.
- Receive a card after 7 – 10 days and go to a dispensary. Please note: Virginia does not actually have a specific program that legalizes medical marijuana as of yet, although the new laws provide a greater degree of protection for medical marijuana patients – “Affirmative Defence” only. Dispensaries should be operational in the second half of 2020.
New certificates are $199, and renewals are $149. The state application fee is $50.
It is good to see Virginia moving towards medical cannabis legalization and greater protections for medical marijuana patients, as well as fewer penalties for non-medical users. However, a lot of work still needs to be done. Despite the changes in laws, nearly 29,000 arrests were made in Virginia in 2018 – a number of arrests that has tripled since 1999. The vast majority of cases involved simple marijuana possession, and more than half of arrests made were for people under the age of 24.
There is no doubt that criminalizing a person for simple cannabis possession can lead to worse outcomes, as they enter the prison system and are denied assistance and opportunities that would otherwise allow them to make the best of their lives. This needs to be changed, and hopefully Governor Ralph Northam sees success in fomenting this change.