Virginia’s Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Went Into Effect This Week—What Does That Mean and What’s Next?

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As we previously wrote about, Virginia enacted a law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana earlier this year. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of misconceptions about what that law—which became effective this week—actually means. Despite the label of a “decriminalization” law, it does not actually make possession of marijuana legal; rather, it changes possession of up to an ounce from a crime subject to arrest, jail time, and significant fines, to a civil offense that does not allow for arrest and results in a fine of only $25. The new law also removes the escalating penalties that used to be in place for multiple violations. Growing and distributing marijuana remain crimes subject to arrest and jail or prison time.

While a $25 fine may not seem like much of a deterrent, at least one state senator is concerned about Virginians being lulled into a false sense of security and recently warned about other ramifications of being caught possessing small amounts of marijuana. “The bad consequences are all still there,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), noting that the “practical consequences are pretty much all still the same.” Surovell explained by adding that, “It’ll still show up on an employment background check because the records are going to be public at the courthouse, and you can be deported for this if you’re not legally present.”

In order to remove those remaining consequences, Virginia would need to legalize adult-use marijuana. And there is reason to believe that legalization may not be too far off. The decriminalization law also approved a study of the impacts of full legalization, with recommendations due by November 30, 2020. But some legislators are pushing for legalization even before that—the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus plans to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana during a special session currently scheduled for early August. Further, although not quite as bullish, Surovell estimates that the state will fully legalize recreational marijuana in the next two to five years.

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