In a sweeping bipartisan vote in the House of Delegates, members voted to decriminalize marijuana possession on Monday 64-34.
House Bill 972, introduced by Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, passed its second major hurdle of the 2020 session on Monday. Nine of the 44 Republicans in the House voted to support the bill that would knock simple possession down to a civil fine of $25 and block a bevy of organizations being allowed to see any record of it.
Decriminalization and legalization have swept through much of the Western United States and appear to be raining down money on early adopters such as Colorado which, since legalizing the drug in 2014, have brought in more than $1 billion in tax revenue.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, was the only representative from the Frederick-Warren-Shenandoah county area to vote no on Monday’s bill. Gilbert said that despite short-term successes such as Colorado, there are still potential problems that haven’t been addressed.
“I have long believed that Virginia should allow other states to make all the mistakes before we ever consider changing marijuana policy. I’m not yet aware that any state has figured out the best way to address the unintended consequences of moving in this direction.”
Herring’s bill, which passed out of the House on Monday, wouldn’t see similar tax dollar returns but could impact the number of people who move through the jail and prison system in Virginia each year. Virginia State Police released a crime report in 2018 that shows that more than 28,000 arrests were made related to marijuana – though up to three drugs can be involved in the statistic. The same report showed that marijuana was present in 59% of drug arrests, more than any other drug in 2018.
Herring’s bill, which incorporated three other similar bills, maintains the standard that possession of marijuana with an intent to sell it is still a crime. Possessing more than half of an ounce, but less than 5 pounds, is a Class 5 felony, according to the bill. Possessing 5 pounds or more would still be a felony.
The bill also aims to redefine newer marijuana forms such as oils and tinctures that are derived from the plant.
However, the bill would grant anyone who has less than half an ounce a “rebuttable presumption” that they have marijuana for themselves and are not intending to distribute it to anyone else.
The bill will not prevent prosecutors from bringing simple possession cases forward, but the civil penalty would be reduced from no more than $500 to no more than $25.
Besides the reduced civil penalty, the bill would prevent anyone’s criminal history from showing they violated the section and any records would not be sent to the Central Criminal Records Exchange.
While the bill generally would prevent simple possession from appearing on criminal records, some agencies and employers would still be allowed to seek records that show if someone was charged under the statute. A list of 11 exceptions in the bill includes evaluations for whether someone can possess a firearm, applications for working or volunteering for a probation office or law enforcement agency, and emergency medical services work.
According to the bill, employers and schools could not require an applicant to say whether they were arrested, charged or convicted for any crime that would normally be sealed under the new law. State and local agencies would not be allowed to require an applicant for a license, permit, registration or governmental service disclose information about whether they have been arrested, criminally charged or convicted if the record is exempt from disclosure under the law.
Senators are set to vote on a similar bill today.