The path towards the legalization of Marijuana in Virginia is one of starts and stops, incremental steps, and even failure.
The ramifications of legalization include the financial and the criminal.
Let us take a look at Virginia’s history with legalizing cannabis, what it could mean, and a future that seems both tantalizingly close and far away at the same time.
Past and Recent Legislation
Across the US, and as early as 1906 there have been regulations and restrictions placed on cannabis that only increased in strictness and severity as time went. By the 1920s restriction had become prohibition in places. Throughout the later 20s and 30s, further stricter regulations came from the federal government affecting cannabis possession, distribution, and use across the whole of the country. This culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which made marijuana illegal to hold or deliver over the entirety of the USA, save in cases of medical or industrial use. Though even then- in both cases- crippling taxes were placed.
In the 1950s, Mandatory Sentencing- thanks to the Boggs Act of 1952 and later the Narcotics Control Act of 1956- extended the ramifications of marijuana regulation into the criminal justice arena. The result was that the sentence for possessing marijuana as a first time offense could translate to a minimum of two to ten years in addition to a fine that could be as high as $20,000.
It was only in 1970 that mandatory sentencing for cannabis-related offenses was repealed by Congress. It was also in that year that the Marijuana Tax Act was repealed and replaced by the Controlled Substances Act, removing mandatory minimum sentencing for possession of small amounts. But even though marijuana was categorized as separate from narcotics it was still under the Schedule I classification, which it shared with heroin, LSD, and peyote- substances deemed both highly prone to abuse and without medical purpose.
From there the federal-level struggle for legalizing continues to this day, while we now focus on Virginia.
In 1979, legislation made it possible for Virginia doctors to recommend patients that they can use medical marijuana to better endure the symptoms of glaucoma and chemotherapy side-effects. Unfortunately this still ran into problems, as doctors were not allowed to issue prescriptions for marijuana due to the federal Controlled Substances Act and marijuna’s classification under it.
There was an attempt in 2015 to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia, as well as to opt out of the Solomon-Lautenberg Amendment of 1990, which encouraged states to suspend the driver’s licenses of drug offenders. If passed, the 2015 bill would have reduced the possession fine from $500 to $100 and removed jail-time. The bill even would have removed penalties for growing marijuana for personal use in addition to further reduced penalties related to marijuana paraphernalia. Unfortunately this bill was rejected by the Virginia Senate’s Court of Justice.
However, in that same year, House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 1235 were signed and passed with a vote of 37-1. The result of these bills was that Virginia residents could use cannabidiol oil and THC-A oil to treat epilepsy.
Up until June 2017, in the state of Virginia, the punishment for possessing marijuana as a first offense was considered a misdemeanor that could mean up to 30 days in jail and either alternatively or in addition a $500 fine. Perhaps even more seriously, it also meant a loss of driving privileges.
Legalizing marijuana in Virginia is a tale of small incremental victories and hard rejections. Then came 2020. For countless reasons the year 2020 will not be soon forgotten for the mark it has left on humanity and human history.
It was also a momentous year for marijuana legislation in the state of Virginia. After Democrats took both state houses in the 2019 elections, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called for the legalization of cannabis and even scheduled what has been called a Cannabis Summit in December of 2019. Discussions at the summit focused on how decriminalization would affect various circles and arenas, including social equity and cannabis related industries such as CBD and goods made from hemp.
Over the course of February 2020, Virginia took the first major step to removing jail-time as a punishment for low-level marijuana possession, following the passings of House Bill 972 and Senate Bill 2 from Delegate Charniele Herring and Senator Addam Ebbin respectively. The possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana would be presumed for personal use and bear a civil fine of $25.
In the following February of 2021 both the Virginia House (HB 2312) and Senate (SB 1406) passed. This meant that the state would take real and official steps towards legalizing the use and cultivation of cannabis, so long as it is by adults 21 and over. In addition the bills are also meant to set up the network and administrative infrastructure for the regulation of commercial cannabis in terms of manufacturing, testing, and sale. All by 2024.
July 2021 instead of 2024
According to VPM, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is expected to ask the state legislature to move up the legalization of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana as early as July 1, 2021.
When interviewed, Gov. Northam expressed how he personally did not consider it just to penalize people for something that would be made legal in four years.
This and similar amendments have been pushed by lawmakers and advocacy groups to address the racial inequities that have haunted drug legislation and criminalization for decades, as reported by ABC 8 News.
Ramifications of Legalization
What could all this mean and why have the Virginia lawmakers been so driven to pass the legislation they’ve been and wanting to pass?
As was touched on above, many lawmakers and advocacy groups pushing for speeding up the legalization timeline are driven by serious ongoing issues of racial equality and drug policing. Court data acquired by advocacy groups from the Supreme Court of Virginia showed a high disparity in citations issued to black people compared to citations issued to white people. In some cases 4 times as much, as reported in the Virginia Mercury.
In addition to the legal and social justice aspect there is also the financial one. Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review, the JLARC, issued a report that stated a legal marijuana market’s sales would greatly surpass associated state costs in terms of revenue.
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