Virginia moves cautiously toward marijuana decriminalization

Across the country, 60,000 people are behind bars for marijuana offenses at a cost to taxpayers of $1.2 billion per year

RICHMOND, Va. (WVEC) -- Virginia may be inching toward decriminalizing marijuana.

A pair of lawmakers from both parties are proposing doing away with jail time on first offenses for simple possession.

Right now, a first offense for simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to 30 days.

Thirty states and Washington D.C. currently have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form.

Across the country, 60,000 people are behind bars for marijuana offenses at a cost to taxpayers of $1.2 billion per year.  This change could go a long way toward reducing that financial burden.

First offenders charged with possession of marijuana would no longer face jail time and would have a chance to clear their records under a bill to be proposed by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County).

There is also Senate Bill 111 from Democratic Senator Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, which would decriminalize marijuana by making simple possession a civil penalty rather than a criminal misdemeanor.

The Virginia efforts come one week after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' guidance to U.S. attorneys, encouraging them to enforce federal pot laws even where states have legalized the drug.

"It's a little complicated based on what the Trump administration and Attorney General Sessions has suggested," said Norment. "We're moving towards decriminalization, but it will still retain under my proposal, the original punishment provisions that are under the Code of Virginia statutes. So we'll have to see. I'm going to give it a run."

Old Dominion University Assistant Professor of Political Science Ben Melusky says with the General assembly now at near-even parity, it makes sense that such an issue might now actually get a fair hearing.

"They're reading the writing on the wall," he said. "Especially wih this influx of new blood of more Democratic members, and with the narrow margins that are in both chambers... these are very narrow margins that I think some of these issues will have to be considered. They can't just be brought up in committee and tabled."

The ACLU of Virginia says what Norment is proposing, "isn't decriminalization if you convict someone of a crime and penalize them, even if you allow the conviction to be expunged later."

The ACLU's Bill Farrar told 13News Now via e-mail that the civil liberties organization prefers Ebbin's bill.

© 2018 WVEC-TV


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